While Ukraine remains tense, and the threat of Russian invasion is still present, the last weeks haven’t seen too many new big events in the country. So today I want to focus on an allegation that has been thrown time and time again at the new government in Kyiv – that they are fascist anti-Semites. Is this true? Well firstly, which political parties are we talking about here? And how much influence do they have on the new government?
Last week saw the most violent events in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. Almost 100 people were killed in Kyiv, with many of them being shot by police snipers. After a day of horrific violence last Thursday, a deal was made to end the conflict. But just 24 hours later President Yanukovich was gone, protesters were in control, and parliament had voted in a new interim President. So how exactly did everything take place so fast? And with Ukraine divided and uncertain, what will happen next?
For an overview of the reasons for the protests, see my post from last month: Protests in Ukraine – A fight for the future
After the deal was signed to end the violence, it seemed for a few short hours that that would be the end of things for a while. In many ways that would have been a more politically unifying option for Ukraine than what’s happened now. While it left Yanukovich still in power after so many deaths, it at least kept the Eastern provinces and Crimea involved in politics. These are the supporters of Yanukovich, and the provinces that lean closer to Russia. With Yanukovich as President until election, they would have had someone in power who represented them. But events overtook the deal.
On Saturday Yanukovich was nowhere to be found, and there was no security around all government buildings. It’s actually still unclear why he not only left for Kharkiv at such a moment, but took away all the security. Revolutions are always full of this sort of confusion. But in any case, by the end of the day the opposition was in control of the country. Ordinary Ukrainians were wandering through Yanukovich’s palace of a house, which was now guarded by protesters to stop looting. It shows how corrupt he was that he could afford all this in his 4 years as president of a poor country.
So what’s the situation now?
At the moment there’s a clear divide between parliament and ex-President. Parliament is on the side of the revolution. It has ordered the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, and elected one of her allies Oleksandr Turchynov acting President. Yanukovich has been deposed, and today parliament recommended he be sent to the International Criminal Court. Parliament has the strong support of Kyiv and the Western provinces, as well as the ministries. Even the Interior Ministry, the ones who employ the feared riot police Berkut, have switched over to the revolution.
On the other side there is Yanukovich. He’s now a fugitive, and losing support even in the East of the country. Sources say he tried to leave the country through the airport in his hometown of Donetsk, but his bribes were refused by border guards. Still however, the East and Crimea do not support the revolution. They see the Western Ukrainian protesters as fascists, something that goes back to the early days of the Second World War. Many Western Ukrainians supported the Nazis for a short while, seeing them as an escape from Stalin, until the Nazis showed how brutal they could be.
This divide is a huge problem for the new government. It’s not quite as simple as is portrayed in the media, with the West wanting Europe and the East wanting Russia. Most Easterners are proud to be Ukrainian. But they feel no allegiance to the new government, and they suspect (probably correctly) that the government feels little allegiance to them. In the eyes of the East the revolution was a coup. It’s still very unclear what the Eastern provinces will do, and whatever choice they make will have a huge impact on the country.
Winners and losers
The big loser in this is Russia. Ukraine has indicated they will now sign the EU trade deal that started this whole thing off back in November, which leaves Russia back where they started. They see the new government as illegitimate, and are absolutely furious at the turn this revolution took on Saturday. Any reports of Russia considering a military intervention to ‘protect’ the Crimea or the East are highly unlikely though. This would destroy the relationship with the US and EU, and isolate Russia completely, as well as risking a more widespread war.
The big winner in this is the EU, seeing as Ukraine looks like it will join the trade pact after all. The deal between Yanukovich and the opposition, even if it did fall through, was a triumph of negotiation, especially for Poland and its representative. Finally, with all the problems the EU’s been having, seeing Ukrainians fighting for their place in Europe will make Brussels feel a bit better about the future.
At the moment making predictions for the coming days and weeks is wild guessing. It’s still unclear what the response of the East and Russia will be. The new government will have to work hard to stay united, with at least four very different leaders who might want to run for President. Ukraine’s economy is in deep trouble, and hard decisions will need to be made. But for the moment, these are the few days after every revolution when people are living in the moment, and realising what they’ve done. Hopefully the new leaders of Ukraine will find strength for the difficult days ahead.
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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