Ukraine Protests: Fighting the Past on the Way to the Future
On Tuesday, February 18, the world’s attention turned to the Ukraine capital of Kiev as violence erupted between protestors and police. The event was a surprise to all, including those on the ground. It is unclear as to who fired the first shot, but by the end of the day protestors had taken control of city hall and several people were dead.
This sudden deterioration was a culmination of events that began in November 2013. The trigger was a much touted trade deal with the European Union that was suddenly scrapped by the Ukraine government after months of negotiation. The protests have heightened the lingering disagreement over Ukraine’s ties with Russia and its desire for western style democracy. It is a struggle to let go of its past as it fights for its future.
The story of how it got to this point begins more than two decades ago.
The second largest country in Europe, Ukraine’s borders connect it with its past and future. On the east is Russia, from which it gained its independence in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, Ukraine is a significant part of Russian’s pipeline transit route of natural gas to Europe. Russia is also its largest trading partner and gas supplier. Crimea is located on the Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea, which is where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is located.
Ukraine’s western borders are shared with several European countries, including Poland. It is in this part of the country where Ukrainian nationalism is strongest. While Russia remains Ukraine’s largest individual trade partner, trade with EU countries exceed that with Russia. Ukraine’s worldwide steel exports are its major economic foundation.
The first decade of independence was a mixture of economic and political turmoil. From the beginning, there was a desire to move away from Russian control. In 2004, the Orange Revolution erupted, prompted by opposition to the Ukraine government’s concessions to Russia’s economic interests and a revolt against the increased state control of the media. This ushered in a fragile alliance of forces that brought in more democratic reforms and fostered relations with NATO and trade with the EU. Infighting and public opposition led to a period of economic decline that coincided with the worldwide financial crisis in 2008.
In 2010, a member of the Orange Revolution, Viktor Yanukovych, won the presidential election. He immediately changed foreign and trade policies to strengthen ties with Russia, returned the media to state control, and immediately imprisoned several members of his opposition, including the prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who he narrowly beat in the election.
While Yanukovych was fostering relations with Russia, the economy was still faltering. The country had received a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2008 and had been approved for a new loan at the time of the election. That loan was frozen in 2011 due to the government’s failures to implement financial reforms that were conditions to receive the bailout.
Two years later, the EU and Ukraine started trade talks once again.
The EU had been pursuing trade relations with the Ukraine for several years. The desire was to create an extensive association and trade agreement with the nation of 45 million people as part of the EU’s eastern expansion. A trade deal with Ukraine would coincide with the ones being negotiated with the nations of Georgia and Moldova. In October 2013, those involved in the talks between Ukraine and the EU were confident that a deal would be reached. The details of the association agreement were to be revealed at a summit in Vilnius, Ukraine on November 28, 2013.
On November 21, 2013, one week before the summit, the Ukraine government announced it was abandoning the agreement.
That same day, Ukrainian MPs voted down a bill that would have freed jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which was one of the conditions of the EU agreement. It was also the day that President Yanukovych announced they were seeking a closer cooperation and ties with Russia, which is part of Russia’s plan to create a competitive trade coalition that can compete with the EU. By the end of the night, several hundred protestors had taken to the streets.
Ten days later, protestors took over city hall and several thousand had turned Independence Square into a tent city, where they would remain until February 18, 2014.
There were many developments over the next several months. Violent police attacks on student protestors and activists, new anti-protest laws implemented by the government, and a December infusion of $15 billon dollars of cash from Russia have fueled the protests which have expanded from the nation’s capital in the north, to several cities around the nation. Suddenly the protests became less about the government’s decision and more about President Yanukovych himself.
In January, members of the government resigned, including the Prime Minister. A few days before the violent clash of February 18, the government and the opposition had come to an agreement in which protestors agreed to leave the occupied government buildings in exchange for releasing the dozens of protestors that had been arrested over the past several months. On February 17, the buildings had been vacated and the government announced that the recently released prisoners would be granted amnesty.
During negotiations between the government and the opposition, the government agreed to changes to the constitution that would reduce the president’s powers. On February 18, the speaker of the parliament refused to allow it on the agenda. As news of the decision spread, protestors once again tried to overtake the building.
In the end, 18 people, including several police officers, were dead and 25,000 people were surrounded by riot police in Independence Square.
By Wednesday night, news of a truce had spread, but by Thursday morning violence had once again erupted in which dozens of people had been killed. Reports surfaced that government forces were using snipers and explosive devices to quell the protests. By Thursday afternoon, the EU announced sanctions that included freezing assets and banning visas of select officials. The United States has also announced the banning of visas for 20 government officials, though no names have been given.
In the meantime, concerns about the already troubling human rights violations seem to continue as reports of tortured protestors have raised alarm, prompting this petition to stand with Ukrainian citizens in their call for the punishment of state forces and the resignation of the president.
Photograph by Andrey Krev, Getty Images via Thinkstock