For over two months now a massive, ongoing protest has been staged in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The protests have been referred to as the Euromaidan. The name originates from the location of the protests, Independence Square, combining Euro for European and Maidan, the Ukrainian word for Square. The protests started on November 21, 2013 when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suddenly postponed signing an agreement with the European Union (EU) taking the nation and the EU by surprise. The EU-Ukraine agreement was supposed to include an Association Agreement with the European Union and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which would have helped Ukraine build closer economic ties with Western Europe, and open up opportunities for better trade and economic growth.
Instead President Yanukovych turned toward Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to join the European Customs Union (ECU), which consists of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. The ECU is seen by both the United States and the European Union as Russia’s attempt to reestablish control over former Soviet republics. In order to entice Ukraine into the ECU, Putin gave Ukraine an enormous discount on natural gas imported from Russia and a 15 billion dollar financial aid package.
To understand the relationship Ukraine has with Russia, you need to understand some of its history. Russia has ruled the eastern half of Ukraine’s territory either within the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union for almost 400 years. In the 1600s Ukraine had an independent state, however, it was under pressure from its neighboring countries. Over time Russia took control of eastern Ukraine. In 1876, Tsar Alexander II of Russia issued the Ems Ukaz, which forbids using the Ukrainian language. However, Ukrainians continued to battle for independence which was achieved for a few years during World War I. By the 1930s Stalin came up with a different approach to try to eliminate the Ukrainian opposition to Russian rule. In 1932-33, he created a manmade famine, referred to as the Holodomor, which through military action removed food from Ukrainian villages leading to death through mass starvation of between three and seven million people in eastern Ukraine. Stalin then resettled those villages with Russian peasants to take advantage of the fertile soil and to Russify Ukraine. Finally in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine became independent, with Eastern Ukraine having closer ties to Russia and Western Ukraine more closely associated with Europe. Since that time, Ukraine has been a pawn in the battle between Western Europe and Russia.
In 2004 Victor Yanukovych attempted to steal the presidential elections and the people took to the streets in massive protests known as the Orange Revolution. They were there for just over one month and emerged victorious. New elections were held and Victor Yushchenko, a pro-western candidate, became president. However, 5 years later Yanukovych was elected the president of Ukraine by a small margin. Since 2007, the EU has been negotiating a trade agreement with Ukraine.
On November 21, 2013, news of the postponement of the agreement with the European Union sparked new anti-government protests at Independence Square in Kyiv. The crowds, dominated by students, grew to hundreds of thousands on Sunday November 24th. Throughout the week thousands of Ukrainians remained on the square and in its tent city chanting “Ukraine is Europe” while waving Ukrainian and European Union flags side by side. These were peaceful protests.
On the night of November 30th the Ukrainian government sent in special police forces known as Berkut, to disperse the protestors and destroy the tent city. They used batons and stun grenades injuring hundreds of protestors, most of which were students. The following day the streets were filled with more than 800,000 protesters. The protesters occupied both the Kyiv City Council building and the Trade Unions’ building and remain there today using the buildings as headquarters.
Over the next few weeks crowds remained on Kyiv’s Independence Square holding massive protests on Sundays consisting of 100’s of thousands of protesters. Ukrainians from all over Ukraine were joined by supporters from around the globe. The protests also spread to other Ukrainian cities such as Lviv and Ternopil. People blockaded the regional governor’s offices in Ukraine, stopping the politicians from returning to work for several days.
Many prominent Ukrainian opposition leaders such as former heavyweight boxing champion turned politician Vitaly Klitschko and opposition parliament members Oleh Tyahnybok and Arseniy Yatsenyuk strongly voiced their disapproval on the stage set up in the center of Independence Square. Ukrainian artists, most famously Ruslana, spent many nights at the protests signing and keeping the movement going. Foreign politicians such as Senator John McCain, Senator Chris Murphy, and former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski also visited the Maidan to voice their support for the ongoing protests. Protestors built barricades around the square to keep police from executing another attack on the protest site. The protests remained relatively peaceful on the side of the protesters. However, Berkut action has been considered extreme in many cases using excessive force against protesters beating them to the ground and dragging them through the streets. Many graphic scenes have been caught on tape of their brutality. The Berkut have also been criticized for using water cannons in sub-zero degree weather against protesters turning their clothing to ice on contact.
On January 16th the protests took a violent turn when parliament members still loyal to President Yanukovych passed anti-protest laws criminalizing most methods of protests with heavy jail time and hefty fines. Many radical protesters moved on Hrushevskoho Street which leads up to the Ukrainian Parliament buildings and were met by police barricades. Clashes occurred between protesters and riot police. Protesters armed with stones, sticks and Molotov cocktails clashed with police armed with batons and rubber bullets. Kyiv turned into a war zone with black smoke rising through the streets and the sight of burning police buses and tires. Since then there have been five confirmed deaths of protesters, but the estimates are much higher as there are many protesters missing. Many protesters have been arrested and thousands have been injured. Riots intensified after the death of twenty year old Armenian-Ukrainian Serhiy Nigoyan who was shot dead at the Hrushevshkoho Street riots by police. Over 100 riot police have been injured and one has been reported dead.
The anti-protest laws and the recent deaths have sparked further protests in major cities throughout Ukraine. Protesters have occupied government regional administration buildings in ten Ukrainian state capitals, mostly in the pro-European western and central parts of Ukraine and have set up barricades around the buildings. As the people are frustrated with the corruption in the government, more demonstrations and mass protests are starting in other states around Ukraine both in the west and the east.
The President has been in and out of talks with opposition leaders for the past few weeks. On January 25th the President of Ukraine offered the Prime Minister position to opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Deputy Prime Minister to opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko. They both declined the offer and still demanded the resignation of the president and his cabinet. On January 27, with growing pressure from protests in the capital and around the country, the Ukrainian government repealed its anti-protest laws with an overwhelming vote of 361 to 2 in favor of the repeal. The following day Ukrainian Prime Minister and close ally to President Yanukovych submitted his resignation which was accepted the same day. Currently the situation is at a standstill and is no longer geared at closer EU integration but has now focused on the resignation of President Yanukovych and a call for new elections. The people in the streets may just end up deciding which direction Ukraine’s future lies.