WASHINGTON — As hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets to protest a government content to get cozy with authoritarian Russia, the loudest American voices to rally on the demonstrators came not in the form of any message from President Obama but from actors George Clooney and Hayden Panettiere.
Panettiere is engaged to WBA heavyweight boxing champ Wladimir Klitschko, who, with his boxer brother Vitali, has been urging the Ukrainian people to move past an era of post-Soviet corruption and embrace the democratic principles of the true Orange Revolution.
On Friday night, Panettiere wished anti-government demonstrators a good evening in Ukrainian before offering words of encouragement in English.
“There’s a movement happening here, and you have a chance to make things right, to make things just. You have a right to a democracy,” Panettiere said.
“And as an American I want you to know that I stand by you, I support your fight, and I will support it until the country of Ukraine in its entirety reflects the beauty, the true beauty of Ukrainian people. Keep fighting. I love you all,” she added.
Actor George Clooney sent a simple video encouraging the protesters.
“I wanted to send a message to all of you brave citizens of Ukraine, who are struggling to look forward and not back,” Clooney said. “We here in the United States have great affinity for those seeking democracy. We have learned through trial and error that true democracy cannot exist without a free and fair and honest election. You cannot have a democracy when you arrest and harm its peaceful protesters.”
Clooney gave a nod to imprisoned opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, saying there can be no democracy “if you take political prisoners like Tymoshenko simply because you disagree with the way they want to govern.”
“When you look to the West, know that we are looking back at you with great admiration. We wish you a peaceful and safe mission. We wish you the government that you want,” he continued. “And we wish you the strength to carry on. Good luck.”
The Berlin Wall moment of the protests came when demonstrators, many yelling “hang the commie,” yanked down the 11-foot-high state of Lenin in Kiev. It crashed to the ground after 10 minutes of pulling against the communist icon’s neck with cables, the head breaking off on impact and Ukrainians finishing off the rest with sledgehammers. A priest even showed up to bless a sledgehammer with holy water before it took another swing at Lenin, according to a reporter on the scene from London’s Telegraph.
Jubilant Ukrainians took pieces of the statue as souvenirs, as a sign that communists’ continued grip on the former Soviet republic would be no longer. Vitali Klitschko, the reigning WBC heavyweight champion and parliament member who is running for president in 2015, has been putting himself between riot police and protesters and urging the cops not to follow orders if directed to use violence against the demonstrators.
In Washington, the reaction was decidedly more subdued as the administration made clear it’s not in a mood to aggravate Russia.
The White House said Vice President Joe Biden spoke with President Viktor Yanukovych on the phone today to express his “deep concern about the situation in Ukraine and the growing potential for violence.”
“The Vice President underscored the need to immediately de-escalate the situation and begin a dialogue with opposition leaders on developing a consensus way forward for Ukraine,” the VP’s office said. “He noted that violence has no place in a democratic society and is incompatible with our strategic relationship.”
“The Vice President reaffirmed the strong support of the United States for Ukraine’s European aspirations and welcomed President Yanukovych’s commitment to maintaining this path. He underscored the close alignment of the United States and the European Union, and welcomed the upcoming visits of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and State Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland to Kyiv.”
Nuland, who was the State Department’s press secretary before recently becoming Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, met today with Russian officials in Moscow.
“In productive bilateral meetings with Russian Government officials, the sides discussed economic relations, issues on the bilateral arms control and security agenda and people-to-people contacts,” the State Department said.
“Assistant Secretary Nuland expressed U.S. deep concern about the situation in Ukraine, and urged Russia to use its influence to press for peace, human dignity and a political solution. Assistant Secretary Nuland made clear to Russian counterparts that the U.S supports Ukraine’s European choice, a non-violent and just political resolution to the current standoff, and a return to economic health with the support of the International Monetary Fund.”
State security services have already said they’ll charge protest leaders with trying to stage a coup. Protesters, however, maintain that they’re simply asserting their democratic rights and fury over Yanukovych’s government refusal to pull Kiev closer to the European Union.
Not only is the president blocking off routes to modernization and greater trade opportunities for Ukraine, but he did so under the threat of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, eager to exert whatever control he can over the Soviet-era sphere, promised trade sanctions and a sharp hike in natural gas prices if Ukraine agreed to an EU deal, but excellent discounts on gas if Yanukovych took Mosow’s preferred route.
The closest the administration has come to delivering a message of support to the Ukrainian people was last week in Moldova, where Secretary of State John Kerry offered one sentence: “And to the people of the Ukraine, we say the same thing: You, too, deserve the opportunity to choose your own future.”
“Let me make it clear: The United States and the European Union strongly believe that European integration does not have to be a zero-sum game,” Kerry said, steering back to opinions on Moldova’s economic future.
Two days before that, at a press availability at NATO, Kerry lauded how “people of all different backgrounds are giving voice to their very real and very deep aspirations, and we urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom and in opportunity and prosperity.”
“And we urge all sides to conduct themselves peacefully. Violence has no place in a modern European state,” he added.
White House spokesman Jay Carney indicated in an indelicate manner that the administration would take a low-key approach on addressing the democratic movement, saying a week ago that “we call on the government of Ukraine to foster a positive environment for civil society and to protect the rights of all Ukrainians to express their views on their country’s future in a constructive and peaceful manner in Kiev and in other parts of the country.”
When asked how the White House might promote that message, Carney replied, “I just used one of them right now.” He then ended the press conference.
State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today that “this is not about the United States versus Russia.”
“And we continue to believe that it’s long past time for the leadership to not only listen to the voices of its people, we continue to encourage them to restore a path to European integration and economic help,” she said.
On whether the U.S. supports the protesters’ demand that Yanukovych step down for selling out their country to Russia, Psaki said “that’s a decision for the people of Ukraine to make.”
“What we are encouraging is a — is a — is a reduction in violence. No place for violence in a democratic state. We are encouraging the government to restore a path, of course, to European integration and economic health. We believe they need to respect the right to peacefully protest,” she continued.
Psaki said she had not seen Clooney’s homemade video.
“I’ll have to take a look at that and see what he has to say about events in — events in Ukraine and on the ground,” she said.