What You Need To Know About Ukraine’s Protests

For more than three weeks, mass protests have rocked the Ukrainian government. Independence Square, in the capital city of Kiev, has been overtaken by hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. With numbers swelling and pressure mounting, here’s what you need to know about the protests.

How It Began

On Nov. 30, protesters met at Independence Square in response to the president’s last-minute decision to back away from an association agreement with the European Union, which included free trade accords and a loan to bolster the deteriorating economy. Riot police descended on the crowd, breaking up the protest and putting around 35 people in the hospital with injuries, while others were arrested.

This didn’t stop protesters from turning out again, and the crowds have only grown in the three weeks since. Along with resumption of European Union integration efforts, protesters are calling for the resignation of the government and new elections. Many key groups within Ukraine have thrown support behind the protests, including opposition political parties in Parliament and the wealthy business class, known as oligarchs.

EU vs. Russia

When President Yanukovych pulled out of talks with the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin began encouraging him to bring Ukraine into the Russian-led Customs Union, a custom-free trade agreement meant to counterbalance the economic power of the European Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, former Communist states in Eastern Europe have joined the EU and moved further away from Moscow’s influence. The economic union and eased travel restrictions between member states is seen by the US and other Western states as an attempt to expand Russia’s regional power.

Protesters favor integration with the EU rather than alignment with Russia, but President Yanukovych argues that demands placed on Ukraine were unreasonable and must be resolved prior to the signing of an association agreement, which would increase political and economic ties. Among the demands placed on Ukraine is the release of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a political rival of President Yanukovych currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of power charges. The guilt of Tymoshenko has repeatedly been called into question since her trial in 2011, and allegations of physical abuse have emerged during her time in prison.

The European Union has broken off negotiations with Ukraine in light of the mass protests, while Russia continues to pressure President Yanukovych to stand against what they call the EU’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Government Response

Following the Nov. 30 violent crackdown on protesters, the U.S. and European states called on Ukraine to respect the right of assembly. An attempt to break up protests on Dec. 11 failed when riot police were unable to disperse crowds that refused to provide pretense for violent action. Skirmishes have ended with additional injuries that required medical attention.

On Friday 13, President Yanukovych held a roundtable discussion with opposition leaders, religious leaders, and government officials. During the meeting, Yanukovych called for a moratorium on violence and the release of arrested protesters, while also appealing for an end to mass protests. Opposition leaders were unimpressed by the gestures, questioning the sincerity of the offer to end use of force against crowds.

President Yanukovych has also suspended the mayor of Kiev, along with three other city officials, in response to outrage over the violence carried out by riot police. Protesters, however, are focused on the upper echelon of government and an estimated 200,000 people crowded into Independence Square on Sunday, according to organizers.

The Way Forward

With protests supported by wealthy and powerful sections of society, parliamentary leaders with large coalitions within the government, and foreign governments, President Yanukovych finds himself facing formidable opposition. Although the resignation of the government may seem an extreme outcome, this would not be the first time Ukrainians were able to protest for massive political change. In 2003, the “Orange Revolution” resulted in the annulment of an election widely believed to be fraudulent. Now, with crowds once again growing in Independence Square, a way for leadership to navigate the crisis but maintain political legitimacy seems distant, if existent.

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