Ukraine Rising: Conflict and Confluence on the Streets of Kiev

Like Anti-government protests in Ukrainemany who have been watching the saga in Ukraine I have been moved by the gravity of the fighting, the stalwart position of the protesters, and the swift condemnation by many in the international community, including Canada’s own Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird. Admittedly prior the escalation I knew very little of the politics involved and will admit still, a relatively superficial understanding, but its significant was obvious, even before I attempted to understand why.

Ukraine has a long history of internal struggle between those with West leaning ideologies and favor closer relations with the EU, and those who would support stronger ties with Russia. Generally speaking, support for the latter arises largely from an ethnically Russian population within Ukraine, most notably in the Donbass and Crimea regions, where Russian is still the dominant language, along with other large cities in the East and South. Interestingly, it was in these regions where Viktor Yanukovych–the now disgraced Ukrainian president–received his strongest mandate to lead in the contested February 2010 election which saw him elected president. Yanukovych allegiances were confirmed when it was obviously his policies were to “perform a sharp U-turn on the policies pursued by his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko[‘s] . . . pro-west and pro-Nato stance”. In the years leading up to recent events however, it would appear that he chose more carefully, playing both sides of the political line. In an attempts to appease pro-western Ukrainians, Yanukovych undertook six years of negotiations with the European Union to create a widely supported co-operation agreement. While the EU has co-operation agreements with other non-EU countries, an agreement with Ukraine would be “the first agreement based on political association between the EU and any of the Eastern Partnership countries.” That is had it not been suspiciously abandoned on the day of expected ratification at the Eastern Partnership Summit in November 2013. Admits a myriad of other allegations–including election fraud, political persecution and a string of early criminal charges which were suspiciously cleared prior to his election–Yanukovych’s out and out rejection of any intention to finalize ties with the EU was the spark, settling ablaze the first wave of major protests.

By the evening of November 21, 2013, estimates described tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooding the streets of Kiev to demand that the government ratify the agreement as promised. The central square in Kiev, known as Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), was an early point of occupation. Consequently, the term maidan and specifically euromaidan became popularized after its use as a twitter hashtag became synonymic with the protests in general. The protests, which had remained largely peaceful, would begin to escalate on the night of November 30, 2013, one week after they began, on orders that the Berkut (Ukrainian riot police) disperse the maidan occupiers.

Dissension grew as images of bloodied and beaten protesters circulated around the country and accusations of kidnappings and disappearances spread. No longer satisfied simply with the ratification of the EU agreement, the protesters demanded Yanukovych’s resignation. “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the hero’s!” they shouted at the Berkut. “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the hero’s!” they shouted as the rallying cry and as a funeral song for flower laden caskets of deceased protesters, marched through the city streets.

Occupation of central Kiev passed back and forth between government forces and the protestors, during which the Ukrainian opposition would try unsuccessfully, to broker several cease fires. As the protests continued into January of 2014, pressure mounted on Yanukovych to act; which he did on January 16, 2014, implementing draconian anti-protest laws, which only served to move the protesters from fitful, into an all out violent revolution.

The violence continued to rise into what some on the ground described as a “post-apocalyptic nightmare”. The death toll was mounting with one riotous day after another ending in bloodshed. Political lines blurred in the face of what were obvious human-rights abuses. While some groups were undoubtedly out to merely to add to the violence, for many others political ties were set aside, as pro-Russian, radical right-wing, and well known paramilitary groups joined the peaceful protestors to mobilize in the hundreds of thousands; occupying administrative buildings, building make-shift armories, delivering medical-aid, and erecting blockades, while rioting continued in the streets. The condemnations were swift and clear, with both US President Barack Obama and leaders from EU taking a stance against the use of force on the protestors. Finally, on February 22, 2014, after two days of particularly intense fighting and confirmed fatalities reaching upwards of 75, representatives of the EU managed to negotiate a difficult peacedeal, which included the resignation of Yanukovych–later formerly impeached –among other terms. While this has done much to quell the violence, as can be expected, tensions remain high.

But where there is victory for the protesters, there is only concern for Moscow. A successful overthrow of a Russian supported government on Putin’s backdoor can only be viewed as a loss. Many post-soviet states have experienced the indirect hold Russia continues to manage, as they struggle to define themselves autonomously away from the eye of the Kremlin. Russia has been known to exert considerable force in the past when confronted with ‘unruly states’ who threaten to undermine their hold on the region, as we saw in 2008 when tensions between Georgia and a Russian armed South Ossetia escalated, due in part to Georgia similarly seeking closer ties to the West in a bid for NATO membership.

The first and actual victory here is against the internal corruption in Ukraine. But will the end of Yanukovych also bring an end to his style politics? That will depend largely on who comes to power now and to the extent of the decay within the system. The second victory however, is much less certain. Effectively, it is Cold War politics all over again, as a new battlefield emerges from the vestiges of old ideological conflicts. Only in this case, democracy is no longer a weapon of the state, but a tool in the hands of the people. How it has been and will be used in Ukraine is no longer relevant to what it looks like in the West. For today, on the shoulders of victory in Ukraine, democracy carries a new name; euromaidan.

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