Unrest in Ukraine

The protests started when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president, announced at the last minute that he wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU. There had been build-up to the Vilnius summit for months, and things looked positive for Ukraine’s signing the agreement, which would have granted Ukraine free trade with the EU and done other good political things — until Yanukovych abruptly backpedaled. He claimed that pressure from Russia (i.e., Putin) was too strong and he was afraid that signing the agreement would piss Putin off. Yet as I see it, Ukraine would benefit much more from free trade with the EU, and from the agreement’s implication of moving Ukraine closer toward integration with western Europe.

Apparently many Ukrainians shared my thoughts, because they took to the streets in Kyiv and around the country to protest Yanukovych’s backing down from signing the agreement. At the end of last week, the peaceful protests turned violent when riot police showed up in the middle of the night and started beating protestors. That only made people come out in greater numbers. More than ten days later, the protests are still going on; hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are out in the streets. Protests are still going on in Ukraine and elsewhere — even London.

Media is playing a big role in aiding the protests; tons of stuff is being blasted out via Facebook and online news platforms. The main marker being used for the protest movement is Євромайдан (“Euromaidan”), to represent people gathering in “maidans,” or squares — most largely in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) — to protest in favor of moving closer to Europe.

It’s thrilling to watch the Ukrainian people fight so hard for democracy and freedom that being associated more closely with the EU would represent. Part of me wishes I were there to join in — living and working in western Ukraine for two years during my Peace Corps service definitely turned me into a big supporter of the country and its people. Sniatyn even had their own pro-EU gathering a couple of days ago, which I would’ve loved to attend. I am rooting so hard for the Ukrainians, following the news closely, and hoping that things turn out well.

That’s a very basic summary, but there is a lot of history behind the current movement — most notably the 2004 Orange Revolution, but also going further back to Soviet and pre-Soviet times. If you want to read more about what’s been going on and why, check out some of the articles below; I’ve tried to pull out the most interesting bits, but many of them are worth reading in full.

  • For some backgroundThe New York Times ran a clear, succinct opinion piece near the beginning of the protests, called “Ukraine on the Brink.” I recommend reading that first to understand where all of this comes from in Ukraine’s history. Business Insider‘s “Why 1 Million Ukrainians are Protesting” also gives a relatively non-biased overview, complete with media, of the protests and the history behind them. Forbes published another great overview, “Why Ukraine Matters” (for a lot of reasons!), in neat sections.
  • “Ukraine’s Battle for Europe” focuses on the younger generation of Ukrainians leading the protests and how mass media has aided the movement. The writer of the piece, Oleh Kotsyuba, puts it well:

The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.

What the European Union and other Western nations can do is to start looking into ways to make an “association agreement” with Ukraine less threatening to Russia. It’s worth exploring, for instance, whether Russia itself could be brought more closely into the European fold. Another possibility is to see how freer trade with Europe could be made compatible with Ukraine’s eastern trade ties. Once Ukraine is ready to start looking around, it should not again have to face a brutal either-or choice that Mr. Putin seems determined to impose.

Six months ago, a dozen Ukrainians would have been unlikely to rally for the pro-EU agreement. What changed? Certainly, Friday’s crackdown provided a spark.

For that, Yanukovich may have no one to blame but himself. The president’s own propaganda machine spent months touting the benefits of the EU agreement, raising the hopes of millions of Ukrainians who want to see their country as part of a European, not Russian, frontier. Whether Yanukovich intended to sign the accords or was negotiating with Putin all along is irrelevant now. Dashing the hopes of millions of people is a dangerous game.

[…] When fear of a strongman begins to melt, so does his power. Seeing hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kiev may have emboldened members of the country’s elite to begin to move against the president. Ukraine’s rapacious [oligarchs] may—for the first time—have found common ground with their increasingly impoverished compatriots in getting rid of a tyrant.

  • Here’s an interesting angle: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Kyiv Patriarchate, traditionally tied quite closely to the government, is actually supporting the pro-EU protestors. Read about it in “Kiev Protestors See Potent Ally Under a Spire.”
  • Masha Gessen, one of my favorite opinion writers for The New York Times who also happens to be Russian, wrote “A Whiter Shade of Envy” about how the Russian intelligentsia are amazed at — and admire — what the Ukrainians are doing and (hopefully) accomplishing. Gessen’s essays are always worth reading.
  • In “Amid Unrest, Ukrainian President Defends Choice on Accords,” you can read about the lame excuses (lies?) that Yanukovych made up about why he didn’t sign the EU association agreement.
  • “Crackdown in Kiev: Battle for Ukraine” in The Economist focuses on the violence that broke out last weekend, initiated by special riot police at the cowardly hours of early morning.
  • For fear of seeming totally biased in favor of Ukraine (which I am, but still), there was an op-ed published this week in the New York Times taking a more pro-Russia — or at least anti-EU — stance in terms of Ukraine’s position. The author or “How the E.U. Pushed Ukraine East” does make some interesting points about how Russia isn’t totally to blame in Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU association agreement. Worth a read, if you’re interested in another perspective. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I do see the value of the claim that “Instead of adopting a strategy that would have allowed Ukraine to capitalize on its close cultural, religious and economic ties with Russia, and which could have also served to build deeper ties between Western Europe and Russia, from the outset European negotiators went out of their way to turn Union association into a loyalty test.” 

Things are happening fast and there are tons of news updates every day — way too many for me to follow them all, but I’m trying to stay as up-to-date as I can. Hopefully my overview will give you a better sense of what’s happening and spark your interest to pay more attention to Ukraine, now and in the future.

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