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June 27, 2014

Remnants of Revolution in Kyiv

Kyiv, Ukraine – Today the new President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko signed the European Union cooperation agreement that late last year sparked the protests that ended the pro-Russian government of President Yanukovych.

Today Maidan, the center of those protests in Kyiv, is still filled with men and women in paramilitary uniform.  In the seven months since the protests began, hundreds of people have been killed either in the Ukraine protests or the wider conflict, Yanukovych has been overthrown, Russia has occupied Crimea, and a strange hybrid war between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces is underway in the east.

A hundred or so military tents still occupy the Maidan area and the place carries an air of continuing defiance with protestors still lingering at the scene of victory, reluctant to leave until they're sure of real change, or because they're from regions now too dangerous to return to.

Dozens of men and women in combat fatigues mill about, mingling with shoppers and street traders; as in Cairo's Revolutionary Tahrir Square, there are stalls selling an assortment of flags and soccer scarves (like in Tahrir, Barcelona seems the most popular brand).

Maidan is still ringed with barbed wire and tyre barricades, as though braced for another onslaught. And unless the protestors voluntarily leave, there will have to be a clearance of some sort.

The red and black flag of the far-right paramilitary group Right Sector is dotted around the camp, flying next to the British, U.S., and other flags. The giant poster of Ukrainian ultranationalist and onetime Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera still dominates part of the square. His reputation has undergone some feverish rehab in recent months with some Ukrainian nationalists, who now insist that Bandera now represents nationalism, not fascism.

But the bipolar context of Russia vs Ukraine doesn't leave much room for nuance; a senior Putin advisor today called President Poroshenko a Nazi.  The Maidan stalls sell badges of Putin with a Hitler moustache and haircut, and toilet paper bearing the face of Yanukovych.

"Bandera as a myth is very powerful," said a local human rights activist. "Who he really was as a man, what the truth is, doesn't matter as much as what he represents as Ukrainian pride, which is different things to different people."

Several extreme right groups who lionize Bandera won respect among Ukrainians during the fighting at Maidan this winter, but that didn't translate into votes during May's presidential elections. Ukraine desperately needs a new politics and a break from endemic corruption. Otherwise Maidan, like Tahrir, is likely to be the center of further upheavals.   

Brian Dooley is currently in Ukraine to research extremism and violence following this year’s protests.