KIEV, Ukraine – Since the mass anti-government protests started in Ukraine about a month ago, authorities and the opposition have waged an information battle. Both sides have an interest in demonizing each other, and the opposition is also eager to keep up the protest spirit.
The controversial statements are also rooted in the "say-what-you-want" post-Soviet culture, in which many politicians are eager to exercise free speech, banned in the Soviet Union, but seldom have been held accountable for it.
Here is a look at some of the most unusual statements and actions during the standoff, which was sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych's decision last month to freeze ties with the West and tilt toward Moscow instead, and a violent police raid against protesters on Nov. 30.
In recent months, pro-Moscow lobbyists have dotted Kiev with billboards warning Ukrainians of the alleged horrors they will encounter if the country commits to deepening ties with the European Union, including job losses, price increases and gay marriage. On Saturday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told a pro-government rally that a visa-free regime with the EU will come only after Ukraine legalizes same-sex marriage. "Is our society ready for that?" Azarov asked. The tens of thousands in attendance responded with a resounding "No." Soon after, the EU's ambassador said the 28-nation bloc was advocating against the discrimination of gays, not same same-sex marriages.
FAKE STUDENT LEADER
Yanukovych attended a round table last week where representatives of the government, the opposition, clergy and civil society discussed solutions to the political crisis. But the student leader at the negotiations, who claimed to represent the thousands of students who have been camping out on Kiev's freezing Independent Square, or Maidan, for weeks, was in fact a member of a Yanukovych party youth group. Pressed by journalists to explain himself, Dmytro Levin said "Student anarchy takes place on the Maidan."
Kiev residents intending to cast their ballots for opposition candidate Yuri Levchenko in a by-election to parliament on Sunday were in for a surprise: there were three candidates with the same last name on the ballot. Putting so-called clone candidates on voter lists is a strategy widely used by spin doctors in post-Soviet countries. It is aimed at confusing voters and pushing them to vote for the wrong candidate. "They are just trying to fool voters," Levchenko, a member of the opposition nationalist party Svoboda, told The Associated Press. In the end, Levchenko lost to a pro-government opponent.
KEEP THE WEST HOPEFUL
Even after the government announced it was freezing preparations to sign a key trade and political deal with the EU, Yanukovych and his officials kept insisting the pause was only temporary and kept making promises to sign it very soon. Kiev was simultaneously making overtures toward Moscow, stressing the importance of strong ties with its giant neighbor to the east. Just hours after EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with Yanukovych in Kiev to seek reassurance of a peaceful resolution to the crisis, he sent thousands of riot police to attempt to clear the protest square by force. In Brussels, patience was running out. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele called to freeze negotiations with Yanukovych until he makes up his mind, saying his words and actions were "growing further and further apart."
OPPOSITION FIRES BACK
The opposition has responded with scare tactics of its own, constantly warning protesters of provocations being prepared by the government. Hardly a night went by without opposition leaders issuing warnings of an imminent violent night-time crackdown on the square and other opposition strongholds. One opposition lawmaker claimed that, unable to suppress the protests with force, security services were preparing to spray demonstrators with paralyzing gas, which would render them sick and virtually immobile. Yet another opposition leader claimed authorities were preparing to plant a corpse on the protest square, blame the death on the opposition and launch a crackdown.