LVIV, Ukraine: With thousands marching in the streets every day, the local authorities openly defying the Kiev government and even talk of setting up self-defense units, a euphoric protest mood has taken over in Ukraine’s main western city of Lviv. Just 80 kilometers east of the border with EU member Poland and a place where locals proudly speak Ukrainian and not Russian, Lviv, with its freewheeling spirit and splendid architecture, has always seen itself as a European city.
It played a key role in the protests that led to Ukraine’s independence from the USSR in 1991 and it is again a key bastion in the nationwide demonstrations against the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovych to sign key political and free trade agreements with the EU.
Up to 20,000 people have been protesting in the city every day over the last weeks, with up to 50,000 on Sundays. If the numbers have gone down slightly in recent days, it is only because hundreds of residents have gone to Kiev to the mass protest on Independence Square.
“Out with the gang! Out with the con!,” they chant in reference to Yanukovych’s criminal convictions for petty crime in Soviet times.
Dozens of buses are now leaving Lviv every day to transport protesters to the capital, with activists predicting some 300,000 locals could end up in Kiev and tip the balance in the standoff with the authorities there.
The city of over 700,000 has always been hostile toward Yanukovych, a product of the Russian-speaking gritty Donbass region close to Russia. But hostility to his rule has now reached a new high.
Archbishop Igor of the Greek Catholic Church, which many in Lviv adhere to, has ordered for the church bells to toll every hour all day in order to mobilize people.
In contrast to Kiev, the local security forces have done nothing to impede the protests in Lviv. The head of the city legislature, Vasily Pavlyuk, has called for a general strike.
Lviv’s defiance of the central government has come at a price however. The state treasury has stopped Lviv from spending some 70 million hryvnia ($8.4 million) of its own funds. Communal workers have yet to receive their salaries for October.
“There have been various threats to cities, to cut the financing, which is going to be hard. They are trying to scare us!,” said Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi.
“But who are they trying to scare? Us? Galicians? Scare us? There were prisons, deportations, repressions. I think that we have endured so much that we are going to get stronger,” he said.
The mayor’s comments captured the spirit of defiance of a city which has always seen itself as different from the rest of Ukraine, let alone the rest of the ex-USSR.
“People understand that the future of the state is in our hands but we need to be tough,” he added.
Lviv and its wider Galicia region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then part of Poland in the interwar period and was only taken by the USSR as a result of the notorious Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939.
Resistance fighters from the controversial anti-Communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought the Red Army during World War II and in the Carpathian mountains even into the 1950s. The city suffered disproportionately from Soviet repression in the postwar era.
Lviv companies and even the city council have been offering employees extra holiday if they attend the protests in Kiev.
Pavlyuk meanwhile announced the formation in Lviv of self-defense units to act in case of an emergency in the city.
“We are going the peaceful path but we must be prepared to protect our home in case of danger,” he said.
The head of the city’s culture department, Iryna Podolyak, said that New Year and Christmas celebrations this year would have a European and protest theme.
“Children in schools are drawing Christmas decorations for the tree in the shape of the crest of Ukraine and the stars of Europe.”
“The Lviv Christmas tree this year will be a symbol of the positions of Lvivyans. This year it will be called a Euro-tree.”