Euromaidan reflects a frustrated people, and it may be that nothing short of complete reform will stop the protests.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Ukraine on Nov. 22, 2004, to protest allegations of voting fraud surrounding the presidential runoff election of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko and then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The race, which saw Yushchenko severely poisoned under mysterious circumstances from dioxin ingestion, became suspect when exit polling for the second round of runoff voting gave Yushchenko an 11-percent lead, while official voting gave the election to Yanukovych by 3 percent.
Yushchenko’s campaign called for protest, which sparked into dozens of general strikes, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience involving as many as a million Ukrainians over a two-month period. Now known as the Orange Revolution, the protest eventually led to a re-vote being ordered by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. The re-vote reflected a 10-point win for Yushchenko, lending proof to the allegations of vote fraud.
These events from nine years ago have manifested themselves in the Ukraine today in a weird rendition of repeating history. With Yanukovych back in power after his successful 2010 election win, many Ukrainians are suspicious of the actions of their leadership. With what started out as a simple protest against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union – which many see as an important step toward bringing Ukraine into the EU – the nation has erupted in condemnation of the Yanukovych regime.
From demands to free former-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – who was convicted of abuse of power and embezzlement in a highly political, internationally-condemned trial – to wholesale allegations of corruption and police brutality, the cycle of demonstrations and violent government response – known as Euromaidan – has captured the world’s attention for the last two months.
On Sunday, the coffin of one of the three protesters who died in clashes with the police last week was carried through the streets of the nation’s capital Kiev, while regions in Russian-influenced central and eastern Ukraine – areas that constitute Yanukovych’s power base – have seen protests at the same time, including an attempt to seize a local administration building. While this attempt was put down by police officers spraying the protesters from a fire truck in subfreezing weather, the protesters did manage to take the Justice Ministry building.
This follows a series of building captures on Friday, as reported by the BBC. Among the reported unrest Friday include:
the seizing of the council building in Sumy, where an opposition member of parliament has assumed leadership of the city’s council;
an attempt on the state regional administrative building in Zaporizhzhya, which was ultimately repelled by the police’s use of tear gas and smoke grenades;
an attempt to take a regional administrative building in Chernihiv, where the protesters have set up barricades;
a clash in Dnipropetrovsk over a set of regional administrative buildings, which saw 14 protesters arrested;
an attempt at a regional administration office in Odessa;
anti-government protesters being attacked by young men with baseball bats in Kharkiv;
more than 40 people allegedly detained after a protest during a people’s assembly in Cherkasy.
“The ceasefire is over. A huge fire of burning tires stretches 70 meters across Hrushevskoho Street, in front of the opposition barricades, billowing out dense clouds of smoke, and thrusting flames up to five meters into the air,” posted Euan MacDonald, a former Kviv Post editor, to Facebook from his first-hand observations Saturday. “The Berkut special riot police are reported to have been firing at protesters again with rubber bullets, but it’s now doubtful they can see the protesters through the wall of fire and smoke that is now separating the two sides. The police seem to be trying to use searchlights to penetrate the protesters’ smoke screen, and they are tossing the occasional tear gas grenade, as well as trying to douse the fires with water.
“It’s all proving useless: the smoke is too thick, the prevailing wind blows tear gas back at them along with the smoke, and the jets of water they spray merely evaporate into clouds of steam in the raging rubber tire-fed fires. As usual, the protesters are keeping up a constant din of clanging wood against metal and the occasional Molotov cocktail and firework is shot across the wall of fire in the direction of the police, but to what effect we cannot see. Central Kiev again resembles a war zone or a scene from a medieval city siege.”
This level of unrest has never been seen before in the Ukraine since the end of the Soviet era.
Similar to the Arab Spring, Euromaidan, a combination of “Euro” referring to the European Union, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti — “Independence Square” – the site of the main protest encampment, was born online. On Nov. 21, 2013, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayeem posted a call for his Facebook followers to join him in Maidan Nezalezhnosti to protest Yanukovych’s rejection of trade agreement negotiations with the EU. Hoping to play on the fact that the next day was the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Orange Revolution, Nayeem was hoping on the symbolic draw to create a small but meaningful demonstration.
Ukraine has always been known as the most European of the former Soviet Republics. Since Czar Peter the Great established his navy in the Crimea, Ukraine – via its Black Sea access – has been an essential line of trade and communication with Russia and the Western European powers. In the present day, Ukraine has been looking more and more to the EU to replace Russia – that uses its size and market position to dominate trading terms – as its primary trading partner.
Yanukovych, despite his political past of allegations of campaign financial fraud and suspicions of major voting irregularities, was elected in part due to his support of an Ukrainian – EU alliance. Both international and domestic observers were assured that Yanukovych would take all necessary steps to pass the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement – despite the Ukrainian Communist Party’s objections and the international community’s continuing condemnation of the arrest and conviction of Tymoshenko, who was ultimately convicted for signing the treaty with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which ended the 2009 Gas Crisis, and former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuriy Lutsenko.
In August, Russia changed its customs regulations on imports from the Ukraine in protest of the European trade agreement. This created a stall in the Ukraine’s industrial output of 5 percent. In addition, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia – an economic alliance created in opposition to the EU – has made it clear to Ukraine that a free trade agreement with the EU would come at the cost of the Ukraine’s free trade agreement with it. While the Ukraine’s constitution forbids the nation from joining the Customs Union – or any supranational organization, shy of the U.N. – the Ukrainian Communist Party and the Russian-friendly east have expressed an interest in joining the pro-Russian alliance.
While initially the protests were in direct response to Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the association agreement, the protests have grown to include all of the complaints against the Yanukovych administration – including the absorption of violent radicals who have acted in opposition to the peaceful resistance that the remainder of the protesters seek to achieve.
Money and power, post-Soviet Union
But despite how random and convoluted this situation appears at first glance, on closer examination, it turns out to be shockingly simple. Ukraine is a young country, and its political traditions are relatively new. Power in Ukraine is vertical: at the very top are the oligarchs. In most former Soviet republics, the power and money in the nation are held by oligarchs – businessmen who, at the start of the nation’s free market, were given preferential treatment that allowed them to corner the market early on. In Ukraine, the top 50 oligarchs control 85 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
Many of the oligarchs fund and control the national parties. This leads to a very small list of people who are tapped to be president or prime minister – who are in the pockets of the oligarchs, such as Yanukovych, or who are oligarchs themselves, such as Tymoshenko, allegedly.
This is compounded by the fact that Yanukovych has invested into the office of president so much power that the courts, the national attorneys, the revenue agencies and all executive departments are immediately subordinate to the president’s whims.
Finally, there is “the Family,” or the officials closest to the president. This informal structure controls much of the Ukrainian economy, which has led to censorship or just outright corruption. For example, the president’s son, Alexander Yanukovych, a member of “the Family,” saw his personal wealth triple in recent years to $510 million. The president refuses to disclose how that was possible.
As reflected from the state’s reaction to the protesters — from the establishment of anti-demonstration laws that prohibit actions such as distributing opposition materials and not obeying imposed limits on Internet use with prison time and/or fines, to reports of the nation’s major mobile phone providers registering cellular phones detected near protest sites — there appears to be a heavy-handed attempt to restore the status quo.
All of this represents a nation that has attempted, but failed to move past its history of “one-house rule” with the Soviet regime. As with the Soviets, a small number of people controls all of the wealth and all of the power today. Euromaidan reflects a frustrated people, and even though Yanukovych has offered concessions, such as a rolling-back of the anti-demonstration laws and an invitation for the opposition to seat one of their leaders as prime minister, it may be that nothing short of complete reform will stop the protests.
But as an increasing number of demonstrators and protesters — both pro- and anti-Yanukovych — turn away from peaceful demonstrations to street fighting, there is a true chance that Euromaidan can be lost to bloodlust. Last Tuesday, as reported by the New York Times, a group of detained pro-Yanukovych protesters admitted on videotape that they were paid 200 hryvnia –approximately $25 — to cause trouble with the anti-government demonstrators. It is unknown who hired them.
“The government tried to marginalize the protest, hoping that after 60 days in the cold people would become tired and leave, and only a different contingent would remain, only bums, but this did not work,” said Yuri Syrotyuk, a deputy head of the nationalist Svoboda party and a member of Parliament.
“The government then decided to provoke a conflict, so some radical element would respond,” he added. “They wanted a schism. They are following the Roman principle of divide and conquer. This is their plan, but it will not work.”
The protesters, among other things, are calling for Yanukovych’s resignation, the release of all political prisoners and early presidential voting. The next presidential election is not scheduled until 2015.