HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of demonstrators returned to the centre of Kiev last weekend, two months since the start of the first anti-government ‘Euromaidan’ protests. Last year’s initial demonstrations were the largest seen since the country’s pro-democracy ‘Orange Revolution‘ in 2004.
Further unrest is now expected in the country after three people were killed amid clashes with police this morning. The violence followed the introduction of controversial new anti-protest laws, which allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings and the arrest of protesters wearing masks.
At the focus of the protest movement is whether the country will forge closer ties with Russia or the EU — the initial demonstrations last November centred on the Government’s decision not to sign a pact that would bring closer ties with Europe, and pull the country away from the influence of Russia.
So what’s going on in the former Soviet state? What are the factors in the dispute? And what’s likely to happen now?
TheJournal.ie takes a look:
Where is Ukraine anyway?
The eastern European nation shares a nearly 2,300 km border with Russia. It also borders six other countries — Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, as well as the Black Sea.
It has a population of 45 million people. The official State language is Ukranian.
Known as the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1922, it declared itself an independent nation in 1991, with the fall of the USSR.
[Image: Google Maps]
Who is in power?
The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich has been president since February 2010.
A divisive figure in the country — previously, he was the country’s prime minister under Leonid Kuchma. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that electoral fraud had been committed in his favour, he lost out on the presidency after second run-off vote, which followed the Orange Revolution protests.
Pro-West opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko then took power, before losing out once again to Yanukovych six years later.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych [Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/Press Association Images]
Yanukovych continued to lead the pro-Russia ‘Party of the Regions’ in the wake of his defeat, and served as second period as Prime Minister, under Yushchenko, between 2006 and 2007. He defeated the co-leader of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoshenko in a run-off vote in the 2010 election.
Controversially, Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years in 2011 for criminally exceeding her powers, a conviction viewed by the West as a case of selective justice.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko during an Orange Revolution rally in December 2004 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]
Whatever happened to the Orange Revolution anyway?
After sweeping to power on a tide of popular support following the protests of 2004, the relationship between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko soon turned sour.
Yushchenko fired her from the role late in 2005, but Tymoshenko was reappointed two years later (taking over from Yanukovych) as the ruling parties rebuilt their alliance. However, the two continued to be at odds for the rest of their time in power.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gather to protest electoral fraud in November 2004 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]
Though Yushchenko presided over some democratic reforms, progress towards EU membership was hampered by divided public opinion.
As the global economic crisis hit in 2008, voters placed much of the blame at the President’s door. Yushchenko won less than 6 per cent of the vote in the 2010 election, coming fifth.
Tymoshenko, however, remained comparatively popular, and made it through to the second round before being beaten by Yanukovych. International monitors rejected suggestions that the 2010 election had also been rigged.
Ousted as Prime Minister, she was convicted of abusing her powers during her time in office — agreeing to a 2009 gas deal with Russia which was seen to have damaged Ukraine.
Yushenko testified against his former colleague in the trial, which he called a “normal judicial process”.
Tymoshenko on trial in October 2011 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]
What sparked the the new protests?
The Government had been working for years on a landmark trade deal with the EU which would have paved the way for the former Soviet nation to join the group, but Yanukovych backed out of signing the agreement last November.
It would have required Ukraine to adopt hundreds of EU laws, regulations and standards, along with a sweeping reform programme. In return, the agreement would have allowed for the abolition of visas for Ukrainian citizens, amongst other measures.
Ukrainian officials eventually admitted that the u-turn had resulted from Russian pressure. Moscow had threatened painful sanctions in order to keep the country from falling under further Western influence.
The decision led to a widening of the cracks between the country’s pro-European western regions and its Russian-speaking industrial heartland, and tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets protesting the last-minute decision to back out of the deal.
A demonstrator holds a torn portrait of Yanukovych at a 29 November rally [Sergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images]
Opposition leaders, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who has declared his bid to run for the presidency in 2015, said the Government had betrayed the people by balking after years of negotiations.
At the start of December, the country’s three post-Soviet presidents, including Yushchenko, released a statement lending their support to the protest movement.
Klitschko is attacked and sprayed with a fire extinguisher as he tries to stop clashes between police and protesters in central Kiev on Sunday [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]
The failure of the deal also stemmed from Yanukovych’s refusal to free Tymoshenko. The EU had been calling for her release as part of the agreement, but Tymoshenko herself later offered to drop her demands to be freed if the President went ahead with the agreement without linking her to it.
What are the opposition’s demands?
The opposition had initially wanted see Yanukovych sign the so-called ‘Association Agreement’ and ensure Tymoshenko’s release. But the President’s failure to sign the deal, coupled with his harsh stance in recent months, has hardened those demands.
The three main opposition parties in parliament now want the President to step down and call snap elections. So far, Yanukovych has ignored them, meaning they’d have to wait until the country’s next scheduled to go to the polls — in March of next year.
Demonstrators with the ‘Euromaidan’ movement (as it has now come to be called) have been camped out in a ‘tent city’ in the centre of Kiev since early December, with larger demonstrations, numbering between tens of thousands and up to 200,000 taking place on Sundays.
There were frequent clashes between demonstrators and police in November-December protests — dozens were wounded on 30 November after riot police moved into Independence Square hitting protesters and pushing them away from the area.
The deaths this morning, however, are the first fatalities since the start of the opposition campaign.
Protesters eat at their tent camp in the central Independence Square in Kiev [Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Press Association Images]
Why are the clashes intensifying now?
The political crisis reached a new phase last week after President Viktor Yanukovych pushed through harsh anti-protest legislation.
The new laws ban nearly all forms of protest in the former Soviet country — they allow for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings and the arrest of protesters wearing masks or helmets. Other provisions ban the spread of “slander” on the web.
Clashes since Sunday turned the the centre of Kiev into a veritable war zone as thousands of demonstrators battled with security forces, leading Russian authorities to declare yesterday that the situation was now “out of control”. At least 50 activists had been arrested by yesterday afternoon.
The renewed violence followed a mass protest against the new restrictions on Sunday, attended by some 200,000 people. More than 100 protesters were wounded at the demo, with four people sustaining serious injuries to eyes and limbs.
Protesters use fireworks during clashes with police in central Kiev last night [Evgeny Feldman/AP/Press Association Images]
The three main opposition leaders — Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyagnybok — were heckled by protesters on Sunday afternoon. Many are unhappy with what’s seen as their lack of a clear plan of action on how to proceed, and the wider movement has radicalised in recent weeks as impatience grows with their performance.
The violence this morning broke out as police marched on barricades at Grushezsky Street shortly after 6am. Two activists were shot dead as clashes the clashes between police and demonstrators intensified. A third person was killed after falling from the top of the ceremonial entrance to the nearby Dynamo Kiev stadium.
The action was restricted to a small area around the street, several hundred metres from the main encampment at Independence Square.
The wider context: What’s Russia’s position been?
Vladimir Putin’s previously described the break-up of the USSR as one of history’s great tragedies, and wants to see the former Soviet states loosely realigned in a trade and military bloc led by Moscow.
Putin wants to build the alliance into an economic counterweight to the EU — a dream all but impossible to achieve without Ukraine’s involvement. He hinted last month that the protests had somehow been instigated by Western powers, calling them “pre-planned” and saying they “seem more like a pogrom than a revolution.”
The Russian President opened his wallet just before Christmas in a bid to win the long-running battle — agreeing a deal that would see Moscow buy €11 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds and sharply cut the price of natural gas.
The agreement served to further anger protesters, who immediately accused Yanukovych of selling the country out to the Kremlin.
Speaking this morning, Russian foreign minster Sergei Lavrov urged other countries not to get involved in the situation, saying Moscow would prefer if European governments refrained “from acting unceremoniously over the Ukrainian crisis”.
Yanukovych and Putin signing agreements during a meeting in Moscow last year [Alexei Nikolsky/Photas/Tass/Press Association Images]
How are today’s events being seen in Europe and the US?
EU foreign police chief Catherine Ashton has urged “an immediate end” to the escalating violence, saying she strongly condemned “the violent escalation of events in Kiev overnight leading to casualties”.
“The reported deaths of several protesters is a source of extreme worry.”
Ashton said the use of force was not an answer to the political crisis, adding:
“All acts of violence must come to an immediate end and be swiftly investigated. Those responsible will have to be held to account.”
Meanwhile, Washington is revoking the visas of “several Ukrainians who were linked to the violence”.
“We are considering further action against those responsible for the current violence,” the American embassy in Kiev said, adding that US the people in question couldn’t be named because their visa records were not part of the public domain.
The United States last week confirmed that sanctions against key officials were being discussed.
An Orthodox priest prays as he stands between activists and police lines [Darko Vojinovic/AP/Press Association Images]
So where does that leave us?
The situation on the ground in Kiev shows no sign of improving in the short term — hours after this morning’s deaths, police launched a fresh assault on protesters, driving into the crowds using tear gas and stun grenades.
The protesters have been fighting back in intense clashes, with casualties being loaded into waiting ambulances.
So far, there has been no move by police against the main protest camp on Independence Square.
In the wake of this morning’s deaths, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has warned that the EU will now assess “possible actions”:
“We will continue to follow closely these developments as well as assessing possible actions by the European Union and consequences for our relations with that country.”
President Yanukovich’s office confirmed at midday that he had agreed to meet with the three main opposition leaders for talks on the ongoing crisis. The move comes just 24 hours after he shunned a meeting with Klitschko, who turned up for face-to-face talks yesterday, only to be met by aides.
Klitschko and fellow opposition party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk [Sergei Chuzavkov/AP/Press Association Images]
The recent clashes are the worst in Ukraines post-Soviet history, and experts have warned that the current events may be the beginning of a much larger crisis.
Writing yesterday, the BBC’s correspondent in Kiev David Stern said it was possible conflict could move beyond its isolated location “especially if authorities decide to crack down”.
The outcome of this afternoon’s meeting between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders is being keenly anticipated on the streets of Kiev.
This is an updated version of an article originally posted on 7 December.