Some have probably seen the apocalyptic scenes of the Ukrainian protests. With smoke and fire in the background, people wearing gas masks or with bloodied faces, and the police with their shields and full body armor bracing for an angry crowd. What started as peaceful protests in late November escalated when police started using tear gas and batons to control the protesters as they seized government buildings, broke windows, and toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kiev. As the government took greater measures to stop the protesters, the protesters fought harder to be heard. On January 21, unknown men abducted Igor Lutsenko, a Ukrainian activist and journalist, along with Yuriy Verbytsky, a prominent protester known by the people, from a Kiev hospital. They left Lutsenko in a nearby forest to find his way back to the city while Verbytsky was found dead in a city suburb. Though there were also reports of protesters stabbing three police officers, one of which died later of his wounds, protesters have reported being tortured by the police. Elsewhere, security forces killed three more protesters as security forces moved against Ukrainian protest camps. Ukraine has begun to look like a war zone.
But what started it all? Ukraine originally meant “borderlands” and is the largest country separating Russia from Western Europe. Going through Ukraine is the easiest way for Russia to trade with western countries due to the forests that cover much of northwestern Ukraine and the countries to its north. Throughout history, Ukraine was conquered and divided by neighboring powers. Then about 250 years ago, during Russia’s “Golden Age”, Catherine the Great controlled southeastern Ukraine after colonizing it. This part of the country is home to some of the most productive farmland in the world and was used to gain access to the rest of Europe. Eventually Ukraine was occupied by so many Russians that the Russians started calling it “New Russia” hoping to make the territory permanently Russian. Then, in the 1930’s, when Joseph Stalin led Soviet Union, Ukraine was part of Russia. During his rule, the Ukrainian peasants were “collectivized” into state-run farms and their lives were controlled by Soviet Russia. Several million Ukrainians died of starvation as their food was restricted and crops taken away. Stalin then repopulated the devastated eastern farmlands by shipping in ethnic Russians. This act of genocide took more lives than the German Holocaust. It was not until 1991 that Ukraine became an independent country again. Modern day Ukraine is divided into two sections; the Ukrainian speaking Northwest which dislikes Russia, and the Russian speaking Southeast which sees no problem in receiving help from their neighbor.
Now to the issue at hand; the man in the middle of all the conflict is Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Born in 1950 in Soviet-controlled eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych is culturally Russian, shares opinions with many other Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and did not speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s. In 2004, there were mass protests against him when he won the presidential election under widespread suspicions of fraud. Those protests, which succeeded in blocking him from office, were called the “Orange Revolution.” But now, he is back. Since winning the 2010 election, Yanukovych and his government have mismanaged the economy and have been viewed as corrupt.
The protests started when Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. This deal, which was popular with Ukrainians, was more than just a trade deal. After Yanukovych’s neglect, the deal could have helped revive the struggling Ukrainian economy. Symbolically, Yanukovych’s decision was seen as a turn away from Europe, and towards Russia. Putin then rewarded the Yanukovych’s decision with a stimulus worth billions of dollars and a promise of cheaper gas exports. The protests had begun to die down until January 16 when Yanukovych signed “anti-protest laws” which restricted free speech, the media, driving in a group of more than five cars, slandering government officials, and wearing a mask or helmet.
While half of the Ukraine wants to join the European Union, about a third of the country would prefer integrating with the Russian-dominated Eurasian Customs Union. The huge crack in Ukraine has even started whispers of civil war which is why nobody dares to take any sort of military action in Ukraine. A push from any side, Russia, the US, any European nation, or Ukraine’s own military could result in war.
On January 28, Ukrainian officials repealed nine out of the twelve anti-protest laws and tabled the stimulus offer from Russia. The government has also offered amnesty to detained protesters provided that the occupied government buildings are vacated. Then, in an effort to calm some of the protests, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Yanukovych’s presidential cabinet resigned and offered senior jobs to the opposition. Yet all offers were rejected as protesters continue to demand the president’s resignation. Yanukovych made a statement saying, “…the opposition continues to inflame the situation calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders. I think this is wrong.” He also added, “From my side, I will show more understanding to the demands and ambitions of people, taking into account the mistakes that authorities always make… I think that we can together return the life of Ukraine and its people to peace.”
But the people do not seem to want to return to their old lives. The unrest even spread into eastern Ukraine and Yanukovych’s homeland, where he previously experienced unhampered support. People protest because their president rejected what they saw as an opportunity to improve their lives and their country and instead made an attempt to further relations with a country that has a history of starving them to death. Their demand for his resignation still fuels their protests, and the cruel treatment of the protesters has convinced some Ukrainian citizens that a new government is absolutely necessary.