As Ukraine’s protest movement enters its third month, the opposition say that 36 activists have gone missing. David Blair talks to the families of the disappeared,
Anti-government protests in Ukraine…. A protester stands guard on a barricade near a line of riot police during the continuing protest in Kiev
In normal times, the route from the golden domes of Mikhailovsky Cathedral to the grandeur of Independence Square in the heart of Kiev might count among the most beautiful walks in Europe.
On the morning of January 3, a youngUkrainianset out on this 10-minute journey across a carpet of snow. But Rostislav Tolstoy, a 31-year-old protester swept up in the struggle against the country’s autocratic leader, never reached his destination.
Today, his face stares from a “missing” poster on the wall of Trade Union House, an occupied public building forming the nerve centre of Ukraine’s protest movement. At some point in his short daylight walk, he simply disappeared.
“We always warn people ‘don’t go anywhere alone’,” said Alexeiy Soloviyov, a fellow demonstrator and friend of Mr Tolstoy.
“Unfortunately, he did go out by himself. We called him constantly for three days, but he didn’t answer his phone. We called all hospitals, morgues and police stations – but there was no news.”
The dangers faced by Ukraine’s protesters were highlighted last week with the horrifying case of Dmytro Bulatov, a prime mover behind the demonstrations, who disappeared for eight days then emerged bloodied and mutilated, claiming to have been crucified. Authorities attempted on Friday evening to remove Mr Bulatov from hospital and put him under house arrest, but doctors instead moved him to intensive care.
And as Ukraine’s turmoil enters its third month, President Viktor Yanukovych remains locked in confrontation with tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying central Kiev behind icebound barricades.
On Saturday John Kerry, the US secretary of state, criticised what he called a “disturbing trend” of governments in central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine, trampling on the aspirations of ordinary people.
And he said that the Ukraine crisis was a key test for Europe.
“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” he told the Munich Security Conference. As fears grew that authorities may be preparing to crush the rebellion, with the opposition claiming that the army could step in to force an end to the protests, Mr Kerry said the United States and European Union “stand with the people of Ukraine”.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary general of Nato, added: “Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path without extra pressure. Democratic principles and rule of law must be respected. Minorities must be protected and not persecuted.” He also condemned the “excessive use of force by the security forces”.
But Mr Yanukovych has shown little remorse – and is strongly backed by Russia. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, today criticised EU leaders for supporting opponents of the Ukrainian government.
“Why is no one condemning those who seize administration buildings, attack policemen and chant racist and anti-Semitic slogans?” said Mr Lavrov.
“Why are prominent European politicians actually encouraging the moves in question? How would the European Union react if the Russian government openly supported street riots in London, Paris or Hamburg, and sent its ministers to these cities to encourage the protesters?” he asked.
Mr Yanukovych, a burly former electrician, who served time in jail for theft and assault in his youth, has not yet steeled himself to clear the protest camps in Independence Square with a full scale assault.
Rather than risk such bloodshed and obloquy, Mr Yanukovych’s security forces have chosen an alternative strategy: they are trying to cripple the rallies with a covert campaign of abduction and torture.
Daily incidents lift the veil on this silent offensive by a desperate president.
The first pillar of the effort is straightforward harassment. Thousands of demonstrators have found their names, addresses and birth dates suddenly appearing online. These long lists also disclose the colour, make and registration number of their cars.
The effect of releasing this information – which could only have emerged from a government database – was incendiary in the literal sense. Cars belonging to protesters have been set ablaze in the middle of the night, with perhaps 200 receiving this treatment so far.
This kind of vandalism is carried out by people derisively known as “Tutuskhi” – jobless youths hired by the government to cause trouble.
Above them stands a more dangerous tier of state agents, centred around the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service. To retain deniability, the evidence suggests that hardened criminals are paid by the SBU to do the bloodiest jobs.
This nexus between the secret police and organised crime controls the second pillar of Mr Yanukovych’s hidden offensive: the kidnapping of protesters.
The ordeal of Mr Bulatov, now one of Ukraine’s most high profile protesters, provides the most compelling recent evidence. After he went missing in Kiev on 22 Jan, nothing was heard from Mr Bulatov until Thursday night, when he staggered into a village outside the capital after being dumped in a forest by his captors.
During eight days of torture, Mr Bulatov said that he was crucified and mutilated. “All my body is covered in blood,” he told local television. “I didn’t even see them because they kept my eyes blindfolded. They had Russian accents. I couldn’t even see because all the time I was in darkness.”
Afterwards, Anatoliy Grytsenko, a former defence minister who now serves as an opposition MP, said that criminals had probably kidnapped Mr Bulatov at the request of the state.
“It was intentionally done just to spread fear among those responsible for the protests,” he told The Telegraph. “In any case, the authorities are responsible.”
Mr Grytsenko added that “criminals” were “very closely linked” to a senior official and a cabinet minister, both of whom he named. “They are working together. It’s a synonym – the authorities and the criminals. They are a synonym.”
Both White House spokesman Jay Carney and EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said they were “appalled” by the apparent signs of torture on Mr Bulatov. Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that Germany was ready to accept the activist for treatment.
The scale of the abductions is unclear, but the opposition say that 36 activists have gone missing since December 1.
Mr Tolstoy’s name appears on this roll, but no one knows his fate and it remains possible that he is safe and well.
Before his disappearance, he spent a month living in a protest camp at the gates of Mikhailovsky Cathedral. This relatively vulnerable location lies outside the cordon of barricades protecting the main camp in Independence Square, popularly known as the “Maidan”.
Mr Tolstoy and his friends slept in a green tent flying the national flags of countries seen as friendly, including a Union Flag. “I can’t say what happened to him and I don’t want to think that he was caught by the police,” said his friend, Mr Soloviyov, 30. “But the risk is high. Everyone sees that people are missing. Some were beaten and many are in jail.”
The disappeared have left behind anguished and bewildered relatives.
Sergeiy Novosad, a 37-year-old builder, left his home near the western city of Lviv to join the first rallies in Kiev last November. These marches were triggered by Mr Yanukovych’s decision to spurn an association agreement with the European Union in favour of taking a $15 billion loan from Russia.
Mr Novosad’s wife, Svetlana, stayed behind with their six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. “He promised me that he would come home for the New Year, but he never came,” remembered Mrs Novosad.
Instead, that phone conversation with her husband on December 30 was her last contact with him. After the call ended, Sergeiy Novosad vanished.
“I have no idea what happened to him,” said Mrs Novosad. “I hope that he’s still on the Maidan. Sometimes I hope that he’s just lost his phone, or that he’s in hospital. But if this is so, he would have called me. Nothing like this has ever happened in my family. I’ve never been out of contact with him for more than two or three days. I just make phone calls, asking people to help.”
Like many others in her agonising position, Mrs Novosad does not feel confident enough to ask the police for help.
Last week was supposed to be the moment when Ukraine turned a corner and began healing the divisions inflamed by the crisis. Mr Yanukovych betrayed how his throne was shaking by conceding everything to the protesters save his own resignation.
In the space of a few hours on Tuesday, he dismissed the entire government, including the prime minister, and asked Parliament to repeal nine hated security laws.
At a stroke, every minister was tossed overboard and draconian legislation, banning almost every form of public protest, was abandoned with a single vote taking less than a minute. On Wednesday, Mr Yanukovych went further when Parliament offered the protesters an amnesty, provided they vacate all public buildings.
But the mass rallies in Independence Square went on. The demonstrators simply pocketed these concessions and demanded the only one which the president had not granted, namely his own departure.
No one doubts that the state’s covert campaign is also continuing, despite the conciliatory gestures. Those in its sights take no comfort from Mr Yanukovych’s calculated retreat.
“Even with a new government and a new cabinet of ministers, nothing will change for us,” said Oleksiy Grytsenko, a protest leader and the son of the ex-defence minister. “They know our names, they know which cars we drive, they know where we live. We are still in danger.”