In shops along Kyiv’s main Khreshchatyk street, sales assistants chat idly or desperately try to up-sell to the rare shoppers who amble through the otherwise empty stores in this prime shopping location.
From international clothing brands Gap and Benetton to a hairdresser and an Internet cafe, businesses near the central Kyiv court where former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is on trial have seen profits drop and customers vanish amid the protests for and against the controversial ex-leader that have taken over the sidewalk for almost one month, blocking access to stores and filling the air with incessant noise.
“Our profit drop is 10 to 35 percent,” said Natalia Chepyrnaya, director of international shoe store Steve Madden.
After the judge in Tymoshenko’s abuse-of-office trial ordered her arrested on Aug. 5 for contempt of court, supporters threw up tents around the entrance to Pechersk District Court. A counter-protest soon appeared alongside, and the opposing camps now faceoff in loudspeaker battles from morning to evening.
The protestors, who on average number some 300, take up around 150 meters along Khreshchatyk.
A court banned the protests, but they have continued as legal on-street “consultations” between lawmakers and citizens. Protestors’ flags and loudspeakers, singing and shouted sloganeering, have continued, much to the financial and psychological chagrin of nearby business people.
And while the empty spaces of Khreshchatyk’s better-known businesses may be the strongest visual sign of the negative economic effect of the protestors’ permanent presence, the small travel companies, hairdressers and Internet cafes that dot Khreshchatyk’s famous archways are also victims.
Two small businesses – a photograph agency and a travel agent – have even decided to move out to get away from the crippling burden of paying rent Hr 180 per square meter in rent while experiencing a 50 percent to 90 percent drop in income.
One Internet café has come up with a way to open a new revenue stream by charging Hr 2 for use of their toilets. Andriy, the café’s manager who refused to give his last name, said they made the decision after anti-Tymoshenko protestors, led by former pro-presidential lawmaker Oleh Kalashnikov, made a mess of their toilet.
“A paid toilet can't compensate for the 50 percent drop in clients,” Andriy said, “but it can save our toilet.”
Food retailers and local restaurants are also trying to make the best of a bad situation by improving their potential to nourish the hungry, protesting crowds who earn Hr 150 a day – all of which could be spent at Khreshatyk eateries.
“At first protestors were sitting 10 people a table and ordered one beer,” recalled a waitress at Kosatska Vtiha restaurant. Now the restaurant has found a new niche hosting foreign tourists who feast on Ukrainian cuisine with side-helping of politics.
“Some foreign tourists deliberately come to find out what’s going on in Pechersk court,” the waitress said.
Muka, another tourist-oriented restaurant, has become the hangout of Kalashnikov and his guards, where he can be found taking a break while loudspeakers broadcast his fiery speeches on constant loop.
“The music and recorded messages directed at the supporters of Tymoshenko’s arrest is very loud and creates psychological discomfort,” said Yulia Borodinskaya, brand manager for Gap Ukraine.
Local residents also find the political battle anything but entertaining. Alex Sokol, managing director at American Medical Centers, lives on the 12th floor of an apartment building on Volodymrska Street behind the protestors. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., he said, the crowds’ hullaballoo bounces through his courtyard.
“It’s very disruptive, this cacophony of songs and anthems. Even when you shut the window, there’s a really loud noise. It’s slow torture,” he said.
But these innovative business moves cannot make up for the daily stress and financial disadvantage caused by the protestors’ presence.
“It was hard to communicate with Kalshnikov's people,” said shoe-store boss Chepyrnaya. “At the beginning, I asked the protest organizers to remove the fence and to leave a mere narrow path to our store, but they behaved really aggressively.”
Things have improved, albeit slightly, since the establishment of a walkway along the shop fronts. “Only after a walkway was organized did the number of clients increase a little,” Chepyrnaya added
The conditions have spurred many ordinary citizens and entrepreneurs to call police and the Kyiv Administration hotline. According to Volodymyr Polishchuk, a spokesman for Kyiv police, Shevchenko district police registered 11 complaints three weeks ago and the number has been increasing ever since.
Kyiv administration, for its part, has received 500 complaints since the protesters first appeared.
Chepyrnaya was one complainant but she was dissatisfied with the result. “We heard that police won't interfere due to unprecedented scale of the event. The Kyiv administration registered our complaint but didn't answer,” she said.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs said it did not have authority to remove the protestors’ camps.
Khreshatyk’s business community is already looking forward to the day when Kalashnikov’s constant speeches and the pro-Tymoshenko babushkas will move on.
But very few believe that the unfairness of their position will ever be addressed, even though Polischuk said that businessmen armed with qualified lawyers could successfully apply for compensation for material and moral damages.
“Compensation is a fairy tale; it is unreal,” said the owner of a small printing shop.