I lived in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk for 5 years, and the problems of the country are therefore not just something happening in a distant place. I hope that these protests will eventually be able to bring real change to Ukraine, and a government worthy of the great people who live there.
This week the long-running protests in Ukraine turned violent, with riots on the snowy streets of Kyiv, and the first deaths reported on Wednesday. Barricades have gone up around the centre of Kyiv, and for the first time the protests spread to other cities. So what exactly is happening? What do the protesters want? What has the government response been? And what does this say about the future of Ukraine?
The protests started in late November after President Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal in the EU in favour of a deal with Russia. The protests were at first mainly pro-EU and against Russian pressure, but have now become more focused on opposing a government system they see as corrupt and oppressive. Thousands of people have packed Kyiv’s central Maidan Square and set up camp, despite the freezing temperatures and snow. Events flared up again since the 16th of January after the government passed anti-protest laws (through a highly suspicious show-of-hands vote in parliament) that brought in harsh new punishments and restrictions, and were condemned as “anti-democratic”.
After the police tried to disperse the protest under the new laws, riots have begun on Hrushevskogo Street, also in the centre of Kyiv. These protesters are more radical, and less inclined to negotiate with the government. This video shows how violent the riots are, and how heavily the police are cracking down. Also this week the protests spread outside of Kyiv, to cities mainly in the west of the country. In numerous places protesters took control of regional government offices, even forcing the governor to resign in Lyiv.
While this started as a movement in favour of the treaty with the EU, this is now something far greater. Ukraine is a country with a truly dysfunctional political system, which has only gotten worse under the current President Yanukovich. The government works in a heavily authoritarian, top-down manner, without a strong free press to counter it. It is supported by a symbiotic relationship with oligarchs, whose business efforts prosper from close government contacts. Unfortunately the opposition is divided and ineffective. Even when they got into power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, they quickly succumbed to infighting and the corruption of the system. This last issue is another reason for protests, the incredible corruption in Ukraine. It affects everyone in the country, and spoils everyone in government.
This government’s response to the protests has been simultaneously heavy-handed and ineffective. In the night of the 30th of November police violently cleared the Maidan square, which only caused the protest movement to really get going. After the protest laws were passed this week the police caused rioting by attempting to disperse the protests. Three people have died, including one man who was apparently taken to a forest where he was tortured and left to die, and there are numerous videos online showing police brutality (Warning: link contains graphic content). Part of the problem is the specific forces being used against the protesters. They are the Berkut, special well-paid riot police, who have a reputation for brutality, and are strongly loyal to the government. Unlike the badly paid regular police, the chance of them turning against the government is small.
However, the major problem the protesters have is the East/West divide in Ukraine. As can easily been seen on this map from the BBC, the protests are a very Western phenomenon.
Support for the protests in the East of the country is much more limited. In the city of Donetsk, where I lived, Russian is the only language used, and support for Yanukovich is extremely high, despite the corruption. The area is heavily industrial, and has very close trade ties to Russia. Western Ukraine on the other hand has historically looked towards Europe, and has always been eager to escape the Russian grasp. These events could pull the country further apart, though there is also possibility that the scenes of police violence in Kyiv could widen support for the protesters.
So what happens now? The president has offered opposition leaders concessions, and even the job of Prime Minister. However the leaders have refused, demanding new elections and the signing of the trade deal with the EU that started this all. It is also unclear how much control these leaders have over the protesters, especially the more radical ones. Joining government could alienate these radicals, and mean the opposition leaders become sucked into a system which is seen as corrupt. At the moment it remains a battle of wills, with President Yanukovich clinging on to power, and the opposite holding out to achieve all its goals. Hopefully the result of this fight will be a freer and more democratic Ukraine.
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