Violence broke out in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev Tuesday night as riot police attempted to dismantle tents and disperse protesters who have been rallying against the pro-Moscow government for the past three weeks.
Protesters reclaimed their positions in City Hall and Independence Square later in the morning after swift outcry from European and American officials. Clashes with police turned bloody on Nov. 30, as well.
It’s a complicated situation happening in the eastern European nation of 46 million, as citizens contemplate two options for its future: continue harnessing its strong ties to Russia or join the European Union with more pro-Western economic policies.
Here are some basic questions about the situation, which could lead to a change in Ukraine’s government and have broader implications for the region and Russia’s standing in Europe.
Why Did This All Start?
It begins with the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine’s eastern neighbor has had a strong influence on the nation for centuries, and Kiev’s policies have long supported Moscow. So, it only makes sense that when a trade agreement was presented to President Viktor Yanukovych by the E.U. that deepens Kiev’s economic and political ties to the 28-member bloc, he panned it because of pressure from Russia.
The protests started right after this announcement on Nov. 21. Protesters took to Independence Square, set up scaffolding and tents, waved large E.U. flags, and have maintained demonstrations in the frigid temperatures and snowfall. Crowds have reached 500,000, according to some estimates.
Protesters have called on Yanukovych to dismiss the current government and call elections to vote in a new government that will sign the trade pact with the E.U. They have also called for the release of detained protesters.
Who Are These Protesters?
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko (VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)Unlike more Russia-friendly Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country, the protesters are European-friendly people from western Ukraine who want to join the E.U. They are also protesting against corruption and fraud that have tainted the Ukrainian government.
One of the opposition leaders is former heavyweight boxing world champion Vitali Klitschko, who wants to become the Ukranian president in 2015.
Demonstrators have also rallied behind Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed political leader who would be released if Ukraine signed the E.U. agreement. She was a key figure in the pro-Western rallies in 2004, and was imprisoned in 2009 for exceeding her powers.
However, not all of the protesters are moderate reformers. Some are far-right ultra-nationalists.
Is There a Path Forward?
A protester breaks apart a statue of Lenin at a monument on Dec. 8. (ANATOLI BOIKO/AFP/Getty Images)The Ukrainian president doesn’t seem to want to give into the demands of the protesters. Instead of signing the E.U. agreement, Yanukovych wants to sign a trade pact with Russia and China. When reports of a possible agreement between Kiev and Moscow were reported, demonstrators tore down a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, dismantled it, and handed out pieces of the statue, similar to the aftermath of the Berlin Wall toppling.
The country still maintains pro-Russia regions in the East, though support has recently dwindled. The region is more industrial and relies on Russian natural gas. Kiev is set to pay Moscow about $4 billion in debt repayments and gas bills in the first part of 2014. When Kiev initially considered the trade pact with Russia, the Kremlin threatened trade sanctions against Ukraine.
There is a possible path forward. Ukraine is now demanding $28 billion in financing from the E.U., which could lead to further agreements with the eurozone.
Why Hasn’t Ukraine Joined the E.U. Yet?
(BBC)Since 2004, several former Soviet states have joined the European Union, a major victory for the West. Those include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia.
But the E.U. has failed to continue that outreach to other former Soviet nations that continue to struggle with Russian dependence and human-rights violations. Those nations are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, according to Edward Lucas in The Wall Street Journal:
They do have three things in common, none of them helpful. Their abilities to make deep reforms range from weak to nil. The E.U. does not want them as full members. And the Kremlin wants to keep them in its orbit.
Blue and Yellow: The New Orange?
The current protests mirror some of the sights from the Orange Revolution that took the country by storm following a contested presidential election. Protests in Kiev and throughout the nation lasted from November 2004 to January 2005, as demonstrators accused Yanukovych of election fraud and voter intimidation after he was declared the winner in a runoff.
Following the protests, however, the runoff results were scrapped and Ukrainians were granted another election in late December 2004. Both internal and outside observers monitored the election. Yanukovych’s opponent Viktor Yushchenko won the second runoff with 52 percent of the vote. Yanukovych, however, became president six years later in a fairly conducted election.
Some people in the region, though, don’t think the Orange Revolution and the current demonstrations are similar. Pawel Kowal, a chairman of the European Parliament delegation to the E.U.-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, told the Christian Science Monitor:
The Orange Revolution was a middle-class revolution, was organized by the opposition, and had strong leaders: Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko. Today, those on the streets are mainly young people and students who gathered there spontaneously to protest against Yanukovych and his government.
What’s the Reaction From the United States?
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (left) and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Payette in the Independence Square in Kiev. (SERGEY GAPON/AFP/Getty Images)The United States has been critical of the Ukrainian government’s decision to crack down on protests in Kiev, as police use bulldozers and batons on demonstrators.
Vice President Joe Biden called the Ukrainian president on Monday, pleading with Yanukovych to meet with opposition leaders to find a way through the crisis. According to the White House, Biden “noted that violence has no place in a democratic society and is incompatible with our strategic relationship.”
On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “disgust,” echoing Biden:
We call for utmost restraint. Human life must be protected. Ukrainian authorities bear full responsibility for the security of the Ukrainian people. As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt handed out bread and biscuits to protesters and police in Kiev on Wednesday after holding talks with the Ukrainian president.
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