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Opposition leader Olga Bielkova says the attempt by the police to disperse protesters overnight in Ukraine was yet another instance of the country’s president breaking a promise.
The police attempted to rush thousands of protesters out of the Maidan, Kiev’s main square, at 1:00 a.m., shortly after the president said he was committed to talks with the opposition.
Bielkova speaks to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson just before setting off to rejoin protesters at the Maidan.
She says the bitter cold is not enough to keep Ukrainians away, and that at this point, believes a resolution to the conflict will require intervention from abroad — at a minimum to make sure the government doesn’t resort to force again.
On why the protest is happening
“The word ‘disgust’, which was used in [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's] statement, is exactly how I feel right now. We are disgusted by the formal powers and our bad leadership in Ukraine. So you need to understand that thousands of people were on Maidan for the last few weeks. It all started because people were protesting by the president’s position and acts regarding E.U. association agreement. At first, he was promising people that he would sign it, but then, he changed his mind. But step by step, the ruling powers started using police and army forces to pull the protest down in a very brutal way. The mood of the crowds refocused on getting justice in place. They wanted those who were put in prison for no reason to be out of prison and they wanted government to be out.”
On the president’s decision
“Well first of all, his own promise to the people who voted for him was always, you will never find any talk, any public speech where he would object E.U. future of Ukraine, he was promising people that this was what he would do as president … I don’t think he can disregard that so many people are on the streets right now, protesting for this very abrupt, unexpected decision.”
On how long the protesters will stay out in the cold
“You know, Ukrainian people are very strong, and right now, they are very angry and determined and ready to stay for as long, for their principals, as long as it is needed. You will see from the news today, more and more people are coming. They are rebuilding their camps, and I am sure this time we will resolve the issue and we will prove that Ukrainians can stand up for their principals.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Protestors in Ukraine are reinforcing positions in their tent camp in Kiev's independent square today after fighting back a charge from thousands of helmeted riot police overnight.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
HOBSON: That sound from CNN at the height of that struggle, as security forces pushed with shields to break through a barricade before ultimately being forced into retreat by swelling crowds that were calling for the government to resign. Opposition leaders calling it a great victory. One of those leaders is Olga Bielkova of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, or UDAR party. She's also a member of parliament. She's with us from Kiev. Welcome.
OLGA BIELKOVA: Thank you. Hi, everybody.
HOBSON: Well, tell us what the mood is there today, especially after what happened overnight in the square.
BIELKOVA: Okay. So let me just start by saying a very deep thank you to the people of United States and the U.S. Department of State for issuing special statement on Ukraine this night. It was very helpful, and I believe it helped us to restrain the police and militia, which was using powers against protestors.
HOBSON: You're talking about Secretary of State John Kerry, who issued a statement saying the United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the protestors with riot police, bulldozers and batons rather than respect.
BIELKOVA: The word disgust, which was used in the statement, is exactly how I feel right now. We are disgusted by the powers, formal powers and our bad leadership in Ukraine. So you need to understand that thousands of people were on Maidan for the last few weeks. It all started because people were protesting by the president's position and acts regarding E.U. association agreement. At first he was promising people that he would sign it, and then he changed his mind. But step by step the ruling powers started using police and army forces to put the protest down in a very brutal way. The mood of the crowds refocused on getting justice in place. They wanted those who were put in prison for no reason to be out of prison and they wanted government to be out.
HOBSON: Do you feel like your side is winning the fight right now?
BIELKOVA: Well, it's not a victory yet, unfortunately, because we have very clear demands. You know, what started yesterday, our president, again, he promised that he will keep focused on further negotiations with E.U., but then in the middle of the night, starting at 1:00 a.m., they started using police and the army forces to push people from the streets. And everybody who were at that point on Maidan, and it was a very cold night, everybody started calling their friends, and we started gathering again on Maidan, and we were fighting against police.
HOBSON: And when you say Maidan, by the way, you're talking about the main square?
BIELKOVA: Yes, the main square. By now, we hope that everybody knows what Maidan means across the world. Only by 8:00 a.m. in the morning police retreated.
HOBSON: Is there any way from your perspective for this to come to an end without the president signing these trade deals and political deals with the European union?
BIELKOVA: Well, I doubt (unintelligible) I doubt. The way we want the situation to be resolved in a peaceful manner, I doubt it's possible without interventions from E.U. and U.S.
HOBSON: What do you mean by intervention?
BIELKOVA: I mean discussions, political agreement. Your Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Newland had another meeting in Kiev this morning, and she was clear that the president should not use again such a cleaning up of the streets as he did last night.
HOBSON: Olga, President Yanukovych was democratically elected, we should say. Isn't it a legitimate part of his job to decide what kinds of agreements Ukraine should enter into, and if you object to those, can't you just challenge him in the next election?
BIELKOVA: Well, first of all, his own promise to the people who voted for him was always, and you will never find any talk, any public speech where he would object E.U. future of Ukraine, he was promising people that this was what he will do as a president.
HOBSON: But even if he doesn't, doesn't he have the right to decide that he doesn't want to do that?
BIELKOVA: I don't think so. I don't think he can disregard that so many people are on the streets right now, protesting for this very abrupt, unexpected decision.
HOBSON: You are an economist by training, right? You studied in the United States. And I wonder what you think Ukraine should do right now, because the country is in desperate need at this point of about $18 billion. Borrowing costs are already going through the roof. How much time do you think the country has to sort this out?
BIELKOVA: Well, we always knew that the new economic reality for Ukraine after the Soviet Union would require very strong reforms. It's a pity that we wasted 20 years and didn't do all the reforms. You know, situation is worsening, so right now it's time to finally make this decision and accept the point that we need to do reforms. We need to modernize outdated industries and after a few years, which are supposed to be very difficult, we will regain our strength.
HOBSON: Are you worried though that this will alienate Russia, which you rely on for natural gas?
BIELKOVA: Well, that's another speculation. You know, if you talk to anybody in Ukraine, everybody wants productive, constructive relationships with Russia. We are not blocking Russian goods in Ukraine. We are buying a lot from Russia, and we do want to sell to Russia without being hostage of economic wars. So we do want to have constructive relationship, but we don't want them to take away our freedom. I'm sure that there is a way how to have constructive relationship being part of a E.U. association agreement.
HOBSON: What do you say to the people who are protesting on the other side, because as you know there are some pro-government protestors out on the streets?
BIELKOVA: Well, we are ready to hear their concerns, and we understand that some people are afraid to lose their jobs, but they have to look into real situations. Regardless of agreement with Russia, our industries will not be modernized. You know, at one point Russia will still buy old fashioned, you know, produce.
HOBSON: How long will you be able to stay out in the streets and protest in colder temperatures?
BIELKOVA: You know, Ukrainian people are very strong and right now they are very angry and determined and ready to stay for as long, for their principles, as long as it's needed. You will see from the news today, you will see that more and more people are coming, they are rebuilding their camps, and I am sure this time we will resolve the issue and we will prove that Ukrainians can stand up for their principles.
HOBSON: Olga Bielkova is a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, a member of the opposition party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform. Thank you so much for joining us.
BIELKOVA: Thank you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.