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Ukraine Protests: Euromaidan Has Real Potential

Two pink cloves are left in mourning after bloody confrontations with security forces at the Euromaidan rally on Nov. 30 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo: Mykhaylo Palinchak, Dreamstime.com)

Protests in Ukraine against the government's refusal to pursue a pro-European foreign policy have received global coverage in recent weeks. The movement became known as Euromaidan (with hashtag #Euromaidan spreading all over social media) due to its location at Maidan Nezalezhnosti—Independence Square—in downtown Kyiv.

The protests represent a unique attempt to demand that politicians do what is best for the country—unique for the whole region. Protests in Russia and Belarus, which also gathered thousands of people, occurred during election campaigns and were caused by people's opposition to their results. Recent Ukrainian protests are not related to elections, but rather to the direction of foreign policy—pushing to build relations with the European Union instead of focusing strictly on developing closer ties with Russia, as the Ukranian government is doing. These kinds of political decisions rarely incite such massive protests.

European integration is not the only idea that has brought huge masses of people to the streets of Kyiv, but also overall dissatisfaction with the current government, as the economic situation in the country is quite poor and needs substantial improvement. For now, protesters demand not only that the government sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, but also the replacement of some (or even all) incumbent politicians with those from the opposition, believing that the latter would make far more progress in negotiations with the European Union as well as on domestic economic policy.

Euromaidan is viewed by many as a reincarnation of the Orange Revolution, which gathered hundreds of thousands of people unhappy with the presidential election results at Maidan Nezalezhnosti in 2004. Protesters opposed the victory of pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych in the elections, which were carried out with numerous violations. Consequently, Yushchenko, strongly supported by Western democracies, came to power.

On Nov. 21, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers passed an order that postponed the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. The same day, almost 1,500 people showed up at Maidan Nezalezhnosti to protest against this decision, and they did not want their actions to be associated with any political party. On Nov. 24, approximately 100,000 protesters came to the European Square, which is close to Maidan, and parties' flags were brought, too. Some of those people stayed for the next couple days, spending cold nights in tents on the square. Among them were activists mobilized by the oppositional political parties: former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Batkivshchyna, boxing star Vitali Klitschko's Udar, and Svoboda, led by nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok. Tymoshenko, imprisoned since 2011, addressed both protesting camps, telling them to unite without party flags. On Nov. 26, two groups of protesters became one and chose Maidan Nezalezhnosti to be its main location. Euromaidan managed to unite around the country's European future.

The Association Agreement was scheduled to be signed on Nov. 29 during the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, but Ukrainian President Yanukovych refused to sign the document, thus further provoking protests. Yanukovych chose to build closer interaction with Russia, solidifying Russia’s place as Ukraine's main trading partner. Yanukovych prioritized this relationship—bending to the pressure he received from President Putin—over the free trade pact with the European Union, even though the economy urgently needs modernization.

The next day, the authorities' patience ran out. Early in the morning of Nov. 30, the police received an order to disperse protesters from Euromaidan using physical force. More than 30 people were injured. After Vilnius, Yanukovych felt that he had much less obligation to any agreements with Western democracies and, therefore, did not need to be as careful with implementing democratic values as he did before the summit. Besides, some protesters continued to demand that the government be replaced. Yulia Tymoshenko, on the last day of Vilnius summit, had urged protesters to remove the current government in a constitutional way if the Association Agreement was not signed, and repeated this message several times over the last couple weeks.

Dec. 1, at least 500,000 people in Kyiv came to protest against the government and its policy, and also against the violent actions committed against activists on Euromaidan. They brought party flags with them again. Party flags were also present during the protest action on Dec. 8, when an equally massive crowd appeared at Euromaidan to show that they expect the government to respond to their demands. Protesters destroyed the monument of Vladimir Lenin, which stood close to Khreshchatyk, the city's main street, a reminder of Ukraine's Soviet past.

Will Euromaidan be more successful than protests in Russia and Belarus, which did not produce any notable results? There are serious reasons to believe it will. Compared to Belarus, Ukraine’s police are less corrupt. Ukrainian civil society seems to be stronger and more committed than their Russian and Belarusian counterparts. The economic situation in the country may likely cause more citizens to become unsatisfied with the government. In addition, Western countries are seriously concerned about Ukrainian events, perhaps due in part to the country's large population of 46 million. Given the unsuccessful experience of dealing with Belarus—where Alexander Lukashenko's regime has become even stronger—the West will try to avoid repeating previous mistakes by supporting Ukraine in its democratization. All this considered, Euromaidan could become a forceful catalyst for change in Ukraine.

Ivan Verstyuk is a senior editor at RBC-Ukraine, a member of the RBC business news agency that covers Eastern Europe. He is based in Kyiv and can be reached at iverstyuk@rbc.ua.

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