BY JENNIFER GAGLIARDI
Throughout the month of February, the Eastern European country of Ukraine was not as ready to partake in the celebratory show of sportsmanship brought about by the Olympics. On February 19th, the streets were bathed in fire and ash as tensions reached a deadly climax between protesters and police in the capital city of Kiev. This ongoing clash between the government and its citizens, now known as Euromaiden, is the biggest social protest for the country since the Orange Revolution. This series of rallies has been driven by the questions of corruption in the government, along with violation of human rights across the country.
The Orange Revolution was a series of protests that lasted only a few months, beginning in November of 2004 and ending in January of the following year. The revolution was sparked by the allegations of the November 2004 election being corrupted by electoral fraud and voter intimidation. This, combined with the highly charged atmosphere, outraged many citizens and prompted them to form a revolutionary group. The revolution ended with a second, legitimate election, which led to the inauguration of Viktor Yushchenko.
The recent political unrest in Kiev has been steadily building since November 2013, when citizens began to demand a more prominent integration with the European Union. About 45 million people was looking forward to breaking out of the shadow of Moscow. However, on the night of November 21st, the first protest began after government officials suspended the signing of the Association Agreement, as well as the Fair Trade Agreement.
The Ukrainian government tried to avoid joining the European Union (EU) in order to pursue closer economic relations with Russia. Soon after this first demonstration, images and videos of police brutality in Kiev began circulating on the Internet. This display of violence by the police sparked global sympathy for the protesters.
On December 1st, over 300,000 protesters marched on Independence Square in Kiev, initiating a violent protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to join the European Union. Dozens of people were injured as the police resorted to tear gas, flash grenades, and clubs. This protest, which echoed the scars created by the Orange Revolution, left most of the country reeling in anger.
Protests have surged from 50,000 to upwards of 200,000 members at a time. The violence continued over the next two months–until a recent turning point in late February. On the 16th, several rebelling activists agreed to end their occupation of city hall in exchange for the release of over 200 protesters who had been arrested. Upon the mass release, the protesters’ goal shifted to limiting Yanukovych’s presidential abilities. However, on February 19th, the parliament refused to enact a bill that would limit his powers in office, which sent the protesters into a violent tailspin.
This was considered the deadliest day by far throughout the unrest. Protesters set fire to several political buildings, causing violent destruction across Independence Square. Photographs of the square show an almost apocalyptic scene as demonstrators tried to barricade themselves from police attacks. Riot squads were immediately called in, using water cannons and stun grenades to subdue the chaotic crowd.
Amid the crisis, a ceasefire was announced. Despite this, several government snipers shot protesters from the roofs of Kiev, reinstating the violence just hours later. Of the 82 recorded deaths that have occurred during this crisis period, several of them happened during this altercation on February 20th.
The next day, several leading members of the protest came to an agreement with President Yanukovych on an early election to install new leaders. Parliament immediately negated his powers and voted to free former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. Yanukovych immediately fled Kiev after the protesters took control; he was later given refuge in Russia. On the 23rd, presidential powers were granted to parliament member Oleksandr Turchynov, who is a strong ally of Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko, a rival of the now former president Yanukovych, was an integral figure in the Orange Revolution. Her powerful speeches and overall popularity earned her the nickname “The Ukrainian Joan of Arc” during the protests. She has held many political offices, her most recent being Prime Minister from 2007-2010. However, due to a number of criminal cases dealing with her abuse of power, she was imprisoned in 2011.
This release will allow Tymoshenko to run for office again, and her political views follow those of the rest of the country. She emphasizes the need to become a part of the European Alliance, and plans to do so without antagonizing Russia. In a 2009 article, she explained “I try to defend our interests so that we can find a balance in our relations both with the EU and Russia.”
As Parliament drafted a warrant to arrest Yanukovych, Russia started to quietly focus on the situation. President Vladimir Putin ordered major military exercises just across the Russian border on February 26th. The next day, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was elected as prime minister of Ukraine. Yatsenyuk is also pushing for EU membership, and his political career goes as far back as 2005.
The crisis shifted focus again on March 1st, when Russia became immersed in the controversy. Putin sent troops into Crimea, completely taking over the territory without firing a single shot. This move caused uproar in Ukraine, along with the surrounding nations. At this point, the United States became involved; President Obama sent Putin a message to remove his troops. NATO also accused Russia of violating Ukraine’s authority, and they met to confront Moscow directly on March 5th.
Presently, there are upwards of 16,000 Russian troops stationed in Crimea. Both sides are trying to keep the situation from escalating to war, but tensions are intensely high. Petro Poroshenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, has been assigned to lead Crimea in their negotiations with the Russian government. However, the talks are slow going. Poroshenko said, “We try to do our best to use any opportunity for peaceful negotiation. But … we don’t have any sign of hope … from the Russian side.”
The United States’s Secretary of State John Kerry is currently in Ukraine, offering over $1 billion in aid in the form of an American Loan Guarantee. “The United States will stand by the Ukrainian people as they build the strong democratic country they deserve,” Kerry explained at a press conference. He also met with the current interim leaders to talk about the future of the country as a whole.
One of the most prominent questions that this crisis has raised is that of the economic state of these countries. When Russian troops invaded Crimea, the Russian stock index fell 12% and their central bank immediately raised its main interest rate. The EU has offered Ukraine a $15 billion package that would greatly aid the country as a whole. The deal comes with requirements of widespread reform across the country, along with a stipulation for Ukraine to sign a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For now, the status is unstable, and only time will tell when both countries’ economies fall back into place.
On March 16th, the residents of Crimea were given the option to vote on either joining Russia or gaining the right of self-government from Ukraine. There was an overwhelming vote to join Russia, and this led to Putin officially allowing Crimea to be seen as a sovereign state. However, tensions remained high and, just hours after Crimea was named as a part of the Russian Federation, a Ukrainian officer was killed when a gunman attacked a base near Kiev. Soldiers were authorized to shoot in self-defense.
Crimea’s secession from Ukraine has also stimulated similar ideas in parts of the country’s Eastern area. Kidnapped journalist Vasily Sergiyenko, who participated in the protests that led to the removal of the former president, was later found beaten to death in the woods near Kiev. Clearly, after a lull in the conflict, the crisis in Ukraine has started to mount again.
Since then, protests have continued in Ukraine over the loss of former president Yanukovych. Most recently, on April 6th, protesters stormed several government buildings in Kiev, smashing out windows and scaling some buildings to plant Russian flags at the top. Russia has continued to move troops near the border, a move that some Ukrainians have accused to be a precursor to a Russian invasion. Since April 7th, people looking to secede from Ukraine have taken about 60 hostages in a government building in Kharkiv. Similar occurrences have resulted in standoffs, including one in Donetsk where protesters took over an administrative building and declared their own government.
Overall, the current state of both countries is shaky. With tensions high, both sides must tread carefully. The past few months have yielded extreme changes for Ukraine, and the upcoming talks will further alter the course of the nation. This type of physical and emotional trauma has evoked memories of The Orange Revolution, and it is creating new wounds for the country as a whole. However, the hope of citizens and protestors across Ukraine is to install a less corrupt government, and ultimately move forward towards a better quality of life.