Protests Escalate As Ukrainians Continue to Fight for New Governance
In late Nov. 2013, people from all over Ukraine came together in the country’s capital, Kiev, to participate in peaceful protests. They advocated for a closer association with Europe as a step toward Western values and a step away from Soviet times and Russia’s historically controlling hand. Thousands of people gathered in Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence, Square, named by protesters “Euromaidan” in support of an Association Agreement with the European Union. For Ukrainians, ties to Europe represent economic and political development in a country ridden with massive corruption, lower standards of living and continual human rights violations.
Right before sunrise on Nov. 30, police forces brutally beat groups of students gathered on the Euromaidan in an attempt to put an end to the protests. This had the opposite effect, as thousands of people poured into the streets in support of the students and in objection to these violent acts. The size of the crowd on the Maidan reached as many as half a million people. The protests quickly became less about the country’s conflicting allegiances to the European Union and Russia, and more about egregious human rights violations and a general disgust at Ukraine’s corrupt governance. Weeks, then months went on into the cold winter, temperatures dropping well below freezing. The numbers of protesters fluctuated, but the whole world watched as the Euromaidan movement continued to grow, setting the stage for political change in Ukraine.
Three main opposition party leaders emerged, proposing a united front and the eventual ousting of the current government. These include Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion with ties to Germany, who appears to be the favorite of the West. Klitschko’s party, The Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, or UDAR (literally meaning “punch” in Ukrainian), attempts to appeal to a variety of people under a broad platform based mainly on fighting corruption. Arseniy Yatsenyuk is the leader of jailed former prime-minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party Batkivshchyna, or Fatherland. This party is defined by its staunch opposition to the Party of Regions (President Viktor Yanukovych’s party) and the current system of government in Ukraine. Finally, the third and most ideological of the three parties is Svoboda, or Freedom, led by Oleh Tyahnybok. This party has been controversial, depicted as far-right and nationalist. These opposition leaders, who at first provided a source of unity for the protesters, have increasingly become another outlet for frustration. After encouraging the people to continue to take to the streets, the leaders have done little to facilitate change. Many of the protesters have now declared an apolitical movement geared towards ridding the country of its overall degenerate system of governance.
The President of Ukraine initially ignored the protests and accepted a $15 billion loan deal from Russia which ensured lower gas prices and immediate economic inflows. Without a need for political reforms and institutional change, Russia’s deal was easy for Yanukovych to accept. As the protests became increasingly more chaotic, yet ever larger in numbers, undemocratic expressions of authority were implemented by the government. On January 16th, Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, for fear of completely losing power, passed a decree featuring a list of draconian laws targeted at the protesters. The long list includes laws against mass gatherings, crackdowns on press not “registered” with the government, as well as the requirement for NGOs to be recorded as “foreign agents.” These laws had the opposite effect of restoring order, and the protests became increasingly more violent and out of hand. Outraged protesters began rioting, throwing molotov cocktails, and setting fire to buses. Within a few days, five protesters were killed, activists and journalists were repeatedly threatened and kidnapped by what are suspected to be government-hired thugs, demonstrators were arrested, and police used rubber bullets and water cannons (in freezing temperatures) on protesters.
Today, the demonstrations continue to grow. Twelve Ukrainian regional governments have been taken over by the opposition, and protests have broken out all over the country, even in Yanukovych’s original strongholds in the east and south. The current government, desperate to put an end to the movement, has offered high government positions to the opposition leaders, who have refused. On Jan. 28, an emergency session of Parliament reassessed the fiercely controversial decree passed earlier in the month. As of Jan. 29, these laws are reported to have been repealed and Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov has resigned. Results from this action are so far undetermined.
Although the protesters are often dismissed as political extremists or provocateurs by the government, a variety of demographics are in fact represented in today’s movement. Young students stand beside the elderly, football hooligans team up with academics. There is growing evidence that regions previously thought to be aligned with Yanukovych are increasingly well represented among the protesters. Unlike Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, there is no clear political leadership or overwhelming demographic. Although this causes some discord and difficulty presenting political alternatives to the government, the movement is an organic expression of civil society and displays a passionate change of political mentality. Ukrainians from all walks of life are out in the streets calling for a discarding of the past and advocating for a new society. Continued unrest seems inevitable, but there is some hope. Ukrainians continue to demand democracy, human dignity, and a better life, and they are willing to risk their lives for it.
—Zoe Ripecky ’14 is a member of The Euromaidan Journalist Collective, which provides updates and commentary on the situation in Ukraine in English. For more information, visit www.projectmaidan.com