KIEV, Ukraine – Hordes of angry opposition supporters have been tramping through the capital since a disputed weekend presidential runoff election, but the protests are marked by a peculiar civility. Strong words have not boiled over into harsh actions.
It's a dispute with a reverse emotional spin. Even though Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych (search) was declared the official winner Wednesday, the announcement seemed only to hearten the supporters of Viktor Yushchenko (search), who claims widespread fraud cheated him of victory.
Hours later, the protesting throng at downtown's Independence Square appeared to be the largest of the week, stretching well up an adjacent hill and jamming nearby streets.
Putting some 200,000 aggrieved people together in freezing weather while many slug down beers could be a recipe for trouble, but here it added up to fellowship. An elderly man in a fur hat and hard-used coat danced delightedly, if stiffly, next to some stylish teens. People clasped friends as they passed by. Bursts of laser beams shot from the speakers' stage.
There had been worries when crowds of Yanukovych supporters also flowed into Kiev (search) in recent days, raising concerns about the potential for clashes, but the danger seemed to melt into the night within a few hours of the elections commission's announcement.
Although they bayed in victory outside the commission, swigging vodka and champagne, the prime minister's backers had a surly tone. But if any of them were spoiling for a fight, Yushchenko's side studiously avoided trouble. The protesters have committed few offensive acts beyond littering.
En masse they shout "police for the people" — but individually they treat officers with respect.
At the back entrance to the presidential administration compound, a riot policeman standing guard was approached by a young woman who flirtatiously asked for his photograph.
His mouth was hidden by a black balaclava, but his eyes crinkled with amusement and she snapped his picture. A few minutes later, he freed his mouth from the mask and started an animated, but quiet, discussion with a dozen supporters of Yushchenko.
"Gang, I have to do my work," the policeman said. "You understand, I am here because the constitution says I have to protect the law."
"But the law is supposed to be for the people," objected a young man in a bronchitis-roughened voice.
The exchange continued on a few minutes, politely if inconclusively.
Even the days of snow that have made Kiev's hills perilous for the clumsy appeared to invigorate rather than irritate the protesters.
On the way down a steep hill to Independence Square from the presidential administration building, some protesters gleefully slid down an icy stretch. One even enthusiastically executed a running belly slide.
"That was great!" one of his pals exclaimed. "Yushchenko! Yushchenko!"