For several years, Ihor Medelyan worked for a government he didn’t support. He endured his job at a state-owned Ukrainian TV channel only because he loved being a journalist and had a family to feed. But Medelyan just couldn’t accept his employer’s stance after a police crackdown on anti-government protesters two months ago that was so brutal it stained pavements red with blood. First National Channel, a government mouthpiece, blamed protesters for provoking police, which contradicted the version of countless witnesses.
“There came a moment when I said: ‘My family, please forgive me, but I must do it. I just must quit and leave it all behind me,”’said Medelyan, 32, as he stood in front of tall barricades near government buildings where protesters and police have clashed.
While there aren’t any official figures to give a sense of how widespread the phenomenon is, Medelyan isn’t alone. Throughout the protesters’ camps, there are stories of Ukrainians who have left their state jobs or publicly condemned the government after scores of protesters were beaten or kidnapped, and at least three died in vicious street fighting.
Four journalists have left First National Channel since the protests began, Medelyan said.
Far away from Kiev, Ukraine’s consul-general in Istanbul, Bohdan Yaremenko, saw news of the beatings and put up a Facebook post accusing the government of being “fascists.” He was soon pulled back to Kiev.
“Police beating people in the streets of Kiev was a point of no return for me,” said Yaremenko, who joined the anti-government protest in Kiev together with his wife and two children when they returned.
“I don’t want to (be associated) with such an oppressive system,” he said. “I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to be responsible for it.”
“Because I have my family living here, they are also protesting right now. I don’t want them to be killed just for expressing their view.”
Yaremenko, a 20-year career diplomat, says he will not return to work at the Foreign Ministry under the current government and is working to start a civic group to promote Ukraine abroad.
So far, there have been too few defections to cause President Viktor Yanukvoych’s government to crumble. He still controls parliament and the feared security forces. That makes the defections all the more commendable in the eyes of protesters, because many of those who spoke out are now jobless and fear government retaliation.
Although the defectors have been relatively few, abandoning comfortable jobs underlines growing discontent with Yanukovych’s rule. Over the past few days, demonstrations have spread from Kiev to other parts of the country, even arising in eastern Ukraine, which has been Yanukovych’s loyal political base.
Anger grew last week after a video posted online showed riot police abusing and humiliating a protester, who was stripped naked in the bitter cold, near the barricades in Kiev. He was punched and forced to pose for photos. In the western city of Lviv, where support for Yanukovych is minuscule, a riot policeman saw the video, packed his belongings and walked out on a 20-year career.
“I became ashamed to tell people that I work in the special division,” said the man, who gave his name only as Yaroslav because he feared repercussions. “If you think that your job is to beat innocent people, then I think that’s not the kind of job someone can earn their living with.”
Volodymyr Lulko, a judge at the district court in the town of Tulchin, showed up at the regional council’s office, occupied by protesters, and announced he was laying down his mantle.
“When I began working as a judge, I was proud,” the 38-year-old Lulko said by telephone. “But when all those illegal actions began on the part of officials, law enforcement bodies and judges … I made the decision that it would be shameful for me to work in that system. Simply shameful.”
Some of the walk-outs were met with skepticism.
For years, Inna Bohoslovska was one of the most prominent members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. She was a popular guest on prime-time
TV talk shows, where she gestured emotionally, shouted at opposition figures and once even burst into tears defending the government.
But she quit the party after the student rally breakup in November and soon showed up at demonstrations, urging eastern Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych is still strong, to defy him and take to the streets.
“How much longer are you going to be asleep?” she shouted from a giant stage.
Some protesters, however, took her gesture with a grain of salt, suspecting she may not have experienced a genuine change of heart, but was rather jumping from a sinking ship before it was too late.
During a recent talk show, Bohoslovska accused her former Party of Regions colleagues “of stuffing your pockets” with government money during the three years of Yanukovyvch’s presidency. Her opponent, Party of Regions lawmaker Oleg Tsaryov, laughed off her tirade. “So we stole and you didn’t?”
Medelyan, meanwhile, has found a new job as a reporter for a media freedom watchdog. As protesters behind him filled giant white bags with crushed ice to fortify barricades, he reflected on his decision.
“There is a line. Either you tread close to it and slowly move away or you cross that line,” Medelyan said.