“All the world acknowledges and Ukraine acknowledges that the state is on the brink of civil war.” – former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, January 28, 2014.
The photos have circled the internet, often with descriptors such as “apocalyptic”, as the political crisis in Ukraine deteriorated. As of printing, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov—who just the week before was asked to leave the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos due to the increasingly violent tactics of his regime—had resigned from his position and dissolved his party’s government. President Victor Yanukovych fled, leaving his opulent estate open for peaceful protestors to tour his private zoo and golf course, and leaving the government of Ukraine in the hands of Parliament.
Protests were initially sparked in late November, when President Yanukovych canceled negotiations indefinitely to form a trade agreement with the European Union, just days before the agreement was to be signed, and publicly reoriented his country toward an eastern trading parter—Russia—by accepting a $15bn (£9bn) bailout. Neither Russia nor the European Union would allow Ukraine to sign a deal with one if it wanted a deal with the other. On the European Union side, an agreement would mean stronger long-term trading prospects and a path towards stronger democratic values; on Russia’s side, an agreement would mean an influx of money and cheap gas from a historic friend.
But on the ground, in the midst of the protests, it is not so simple. The country hardly prospered under the Soviet Union, but parts of the country—namely the southeast’s heavy industry sector—still have very close trade ties with Russia. The country’s politics are aligned along ethno-linguistic barriers: 4 out of 6 people are ethnic Ukrainian and speak Ukrainian, but 1 out of 6 are ethnic Russian and speak Russian, and 1 out of 6 are ethnic Ukrainian but speak Russian; 44.5 percent of people in the south and 40.8 percent in the east self-identify as belonging to a Soviet or Russian cultural tradition. Furthermore, over 50 percent of people in both the southern and eastern regions say they regret the Soviet Union fell apart, while only 17 percent in the western region report the same sentiment.
But protests spread across Ukraine, even into President Yanukovych’s base in the east, and protestors began to occupy several government buildings. Government corruption is rife, and a general consensus now seems to be growing among a certain portion of Ukrainians that Yanukovych—a man with two assault and robbery convictions, who served as governor of Donetsk during the peak of violent criminal activity in the region, and who occasionally uses criminal slang in his public speeches—sat at the top of this system.
This perception was not improved by the passing of a group of ten laws on January 16, 2014 collectively known as either the “anti-protest laws” or the "dictatorship laws". The laws criminalized a broad range of protest activity, including wearing masks, blocking access to any building, or in many cases even being caught near a protest; allowed for the trial of individuals in absentia; extended amnesty from prosecution for crimes committed against protestors to law enforcement officials and Berkut security forces; and put in place provisions for controlling and censoring internet content.
After the laws were put in place, reports began to emerge from the country of injured protestors disappearing from hospitals, only to be found brutally beaten to death and raped in the forest outside of Kiev. Protestors received mass text messages, reading, “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” This chilling Orwellian move was made possible by government-controlled technology used to pinpoint the locations of phones in use near clashes, tracing the user’s signal directly.
International leaders and Ukrainian opposition parties alike pushed back immediately. Previously-jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said in a statement, “I ask the opposition and civil society to act quickly and decisively because we won't be defending the law, which Yanukovych humiliated on January 16, but Ukrainian parliamentary system which is the final barricade before the total establishment of dictatorship. I ask the opposition to act immediately.” European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said in a tweet that he was "profoundly concerned by new legislation limiting freedoms." Wikipedia announced it would black out its Ukrainian language version from 4 to 4:30 PM from January 21 onward in protest.
January 16th, now referred to as “Black Sunday” by Ukrainian opposition groups, brought millions more people to the Euromaidan. Brutal police force changed protests that U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt earlier praised as “Gandhian” to a movement filled with violence responding to violence.
Protests continued through January and into February, with opposition leaders stating they refused to end their occupation of Kiev's Independence Square until President Yanukovych was out of office. A truce was reached in mid-February, and observers wondered if it could be the beginnings of a political resolution to the violence. But the situation deteriorated radically on February 19th and 20th.
Police moved into Independence Square, pushing out protestors and recapturing much of the ground they had occupied. Many thought the opposition would be crushed by morning. But then, for reasons not quite understood, police began to shoot at the remaining protestors hunkered down in the square, hiding behind barricades. Suddenly, in the early hours of the morning, a group of "young men in ski masks" slipped through an opening in the barricades and rushed the line of security forces across 100 yards of smoldering debris and live ammunition. Dozens were mowed down, although more made it to the police stronghold and managed to regain much of the lost ground. For the first time, people had been killed under the flag of the European Union. War had broken out in Kiev, and all it would take was a spark for it to spread through the country.
The next day began a series of frantic political negotiations—all of which failed when faced with the anger growing in the streets. Finally, when President Yanukovych refused to resign or leave the country, Ukraine's Parliament dismissed him, voting 328 to 122 that he should be removed from office. At the same time, the Parliament amended the criminal code, and voted to release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been jailed on allegedly trumped-up charges of public corruption.
Ukraine is not yet to safe place. Leaders of eastern regions of the country, with ties to Russia, are challenging the legitimacy of Parliament's actions. Yanukovych is nowhere to be found—although he is rumored to be hiding in Crimea, attempting to flee to Moscow—and a warrant for his arrest has been issued on charges of the "mass killings" of protestors. Peaceful protestors, in awe at the opulence he kept hidden from the country, have toured his house, posting photos to social media of the former president's classic car collection, functional pirate ship, and private zoo with ostriches from three continents. Anger continues to grow as proof of corruption is released, including information that 50 percent of state contracts over the past month have gone to Yanukovych's brother. Meanwhile, since being cut off from Russian aid, Ukraine faces an economic emergency, with experts predicting the country will be bankrupt in just about six weeks without a bailout.
The long-term effects of the political crisis are still unknown. How will Russia's relationship with the European Union and the U.S. be affected? Will Ukraine find, like Egypt has, that it is easier to start a revolution than it is to finish one?
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's March/April 2014 print edition. It has been updated and expanded to reflect current developments.
All photos courtesy of Bigstock Photos.