Protests in Ukraine reveal tensions between the EU and Russia

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For the past three months, Ukrainians have been on the streets toppling Soviet monuments and firing Molotovs at riot police. The situation involves eastern European politics and a people that have lived under the shadow of its former Soviet past.

Protesters flood the main square in Kiev
Protesters flood the main square in Kiev

The crisis began last year on 21 November, when President Yanukovych decided not to sign a previously negotiated association agreement with the European Union. The agreement was a step closer to the EU membership waiting room. The government has admitted that Russia asked it to delay signing the EU agreement.

The sudden U-turn away from Europe has fuelled concerns about Ukraine turning eastward. In December, Mr Yanukovych inked a deal with Russia in which the latter would cut gas prices and buy off £9.2 billion worth of Ukrainian EU-debt assets. Mr Azarov, the Ukrainian prime minister, argued that the aid deal with Russia had saved the country. “What would have awaited Ukraine? The answer is clear — bankruptcy and social collapse.”

The deal’s signing was immediately followed by mass protests, which have continued for almost two months in Kiev’s Independence Square. Government estimates put the number at 6,000 protestors, but the opposition claims figures as high as 70,000 on any given day. Protesters have demanded to know what the government promised Russia in exchange for the deal. The demonstrations, known as “Euromaidan”, largely call for more integration with Europe.

Last month, the Ukrainian government voted to heavily restrict protest activities. In response, opposition leaders and social media users called for even bigger protests. After an unsatisfying meeting between the president and three opposition leaders on 21 January, influential MP and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko called on the government to hold snap elections, cancel the anti-protest laws and resign within 24 hours. As both sides call each other “criminals” and “terrorists”, it is hard to imagine how an exit from the deadlock can be achieved.

For everyone in close proximity to the protest epicentre, the next day started with a government text message reading: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” Then riot police cracked down on the protesters’ compounds, many of which have been barricaded since December. Two people were confirmed dead, and hundreds injured. Opposition groups claim that three more died in the crackdown.

Little suggests a genuine effort from the government to end the deadlock. While Mr Yanukovych has expressed regret for the deaths, Mr Azarov called the protesters “criminals who must be held under account for their actions”, blaming the opposition for the first deaths since the start of the protests.

UkraineMeanwhile, the opposition have not backed down. In late January, Mr Yanukovych offered the position of deputy prime minister to Mr Klitschko and the position of prime minister (no longer held by Azarov) to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, another opposition leader. Both declined because of their unmet demands.

“A new constitution. A new president. A new government. A new country. This is what we want, and we will prevail,” said Mr Yatsenyuk.

Meanwhile, at a Munich summit last week attended by EU, US and Russian officials, the American stance was unequivocal. “The US stands firm with the Ukrainian people,” said US secretary of state John Kerry. In a tug of war, the Russian foreign minister responded with accusations that the west was not giving Ukraine alternative options as to whom it can align to.

Once the storm dies out, there will be more to judge about Ukraine’s future. It is too early to say who is going to prevail, or if there has ever been a scenario for the people on the streets where they do win.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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