Since November 21, thousands have occupied Maidan Square in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine after President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a proposed pact with the European Union. What started as small-scale, spontaneous protests has turned into calls for nothing less than the resignation of the government and for closer integration with Europe.
Protesters have erected a tent camp in Maidan Square and, for the past ten days, also occupied Kiev’s city hall, declaring it the center of a revolutionary self-government. Sunday saw the biggest demonstration since the 2004 Orange Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of people assembling in the center of Kiev and bringing traffic to a halt. The city’s statue of Vladimir Lenin was pulled down and hacked to pieces.
In the dead of night on early Wednesday morning, riot police in helmets and armed with shields sought to clear the square of protesters and pull down their barricades but abandoned the attempt. Now the Ukraine’s prime minister, Mykola Azarov, has said that no force will be used.
Why have Ukrainians been camped out in Maidan Square for nearly three weeks in temperatures falling as low as 9 degrees F (-13 degrees Celsius)?
1. A trade pact with the E.U. that was cancelled at the last moment
Last month, Yanukovych pulled out of a pact that would have brought the Ukraine closer to Europe and that had been in the works for more than a year. E.U. leaders had told the Ukraine that the agreement could only be ratified if the government addressed concerns about the “stark deterioration of democracy and the rule of law” and specifically the imprisonment of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Ukrainians are also angry about corruption among politicians. Yanukovych has himself served two terms in prison, for robbery and assault, in 1967 and 1970. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the parliamentary leader of Batkivshchyna, the main opposition party, asserts that Yanukovych has extracted $20 billion from Russia, some of which he intends to use for his election campaign in 2015.
2. Calls for closer integration to Europe
A 2013 study has found that some 49 percent of Ukrainians favor increasing economic ties with the E.U. While most of those in Maidan Square are from western Ukraine, where more feel drawn to Europe than in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, eastern Ukrainians are also taking part. One prominent demonstrator is world heavy weight boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko, the leader of the Udar (Punch) movement who plans to run for president in 2015.
3. An economy in crisis
The Ukrainian government could run out of cash in just a few months; its economy relies heavily on uncompetitive heavy industries. The government has no budget in place for next year, its borrowing costs have risen to their highest levels in years and investors have been fleeing the country; it could need a rescue package as large as $18 billion. But the rescue terms called for by the International Monetary Fund include big budget cuts and a 40 percent increase in gas bills; the Ukrainian government has dubbed these ”excessively harsh.”
While some think that more European investment could strengthen the Ukraine’s economy, others are fearful of how freer trade will affect inefficient facilities in areas like steel.
4. Close, and not so close, ties to Russia
Yanukovych’s government suspended preparations to sign the pact specifically because of a “drop in industrial production and our relationships with CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries,” which includes Russia, Kazakhstan and other former Soviet Republics. It is certainly not in President Vladimir Putin‘s interests for the Ukraine to move closer to Europe. Russia, the Ukraine’s largest trading partner, is thought to have offered the Ukraine financial support (including a possible $9 billion discount on Russian gas prices) and reduced gas prices if it does not sign the pact and joins a Russian-led economic bloc.
If the Ukraine does sign the pact, Russia has also threatened retaliation against Ukrainian imports. China has also offered to invest $7 billion or more in the Ukraine’s economy.
5. Riot police sent in against protesters
On November 30, riot police injured dozens when they sought to break up a student protest. Images of wounded protesters sparked anger at Yanukovych and, on December 1, hundreds of thousands joined the Kiev protest in Maidan Square. A smaller scale protest was held on December 8 in a heavy snowfall.
After the police showed up early on Wednesday this week – and ended up in fights with some protesters that turned violent — busloads of riot police were sent in but ended up driving off. Protesters in construction hats and bicycle helmets wielding sticks, clubs and metal rods have been defending their barricades and the Trade Unions buildings, which protest leaders have turned into the headquarters for what they are calling the National Resistance. They have also used the freezing temperatures to their advantage, at one point spraying the street with a fire hose to turn it into an ice rink.
6. Foreign powers’ criticism of the use of force
Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s top foreign representative, has met with Yanukovych and told him that he should not use force. She has also visited Maidan Square, escorted by Yatsenyuk of the opposition party. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry issued a strong statement after the police were sent in, saying that the “United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt have also visited the protesters in the square and passed out blankets and food.
7. Tymoshenko, the imprisoned opposition leader
The leader of the Ukrainian opposition was sentenced to seven years in prison in December of 2011 on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power. She has been on three hunger strikes since her imprisonment and is currently being held in a hospital under police surveillance, to receive treatment for a medical condition. The EU has repeatedly said that her release is a condition for ratification of the EU Association Agreement. As a sign of her popularity among protesters, crowds chanted her name when Ashton walked through the square.
On Monday, Yanukovych said that Ukrainian government officials might visit Brussels to resume talks about the agreement. On Tuesday, at a “roundtable” meeting involving three of the country’s previous presidents, the president said that he would seek to sign the E.U. deal, on the grounds that Europe gives the country better financial conditions. What E.U. officials next decide to do could determine whether the Ukraine moves towards the West or closer to the East, towards Russia and China.