Demonstrations continued in Ukraine throughout the past week despite harsh weather conditions and attempts from the authorities to stop them. They started out on November 21 in reaction to the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend talks on signing a free-trade agreement with the European Union, but have since moved to demand dismissals of the country’s top officials.
The largest protest involved some 500,000 people
By the end of last week, Ukrainian officials made statements suggesting that the deal with the EU could still be signed. Having met EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle in Brussels, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov said that an agreement may be reached after several “trade issues” are resolved.
A similar statement was said to have been made by President Viktor Yanukovych, according to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who spoke to the Ukrainian head of state several times last week. The opposition does not seem satisfied with these promises, however.
The protests in Ukraine, dubbed the “Euromaidan,” are centered around Kiev’s main square Maidan Nezalezhnosti, which was also the main scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution. The largest of them, on December 8, involved about 400,000-500,000 protesters, but several thousand people are continuously present on the square. It was on December 8 that the crowd in the Ukrainian capital brought down the statue of Vladimir Lenin, making a symbolic statement.
Last Tuesday, police forces tried to push activists off Maidan Nezalezhnosti, but did not succeed. However they destroyed barricades and stormed buildings occupied by the protesters. Though this attempt to thwart protests was not as violent as the first one back in November, it sparked criticism from the West.
US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement expressing his country’s “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
The US Department of State went on to suggest it could take action against Ukrainian authorities. “All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table, in our view, but obviously that still is being evaluated,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Poland in turn offered to mediate. The Ukrainian Ambassador to Poland, Markiyan Malsky, was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last Wednesday and presented with such a proposal, which he said he would pass on to his country’s authorities. Earlier that day, the Polish ministry also issued an official statement condemning the use of violence.
But the Ukrainian stalemate won’t be easy to resolve, as multiple interests are involved, both inside the country and in its international environment.
The protesters may be seen as one group by observers from abroad, but they are indeed led by several political groups, the two most visible being Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina and Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR.
Ms Tymoshenko was initially seen as the face of the protest action. The former prime minister is in jail, sentenced for corruption and abuse of power. Her case was one of the main subjects of negotiations between Ukraine and the EU, as European officials demanded that she be allowed to get medical treatment abroad.
However in the past few days it is Mr Klitschko, well known in the West as a former boxer, who got into the limelight. His stance is more radical, at first declining any dialog with present authorities and demanding snap elections, both presidential and parliamentary. He has since agreed to take part in talks, however.
The government side of the conflict is also not unanimous and, perhaps more pertinently, is faced with more than just a political crisis. Ukraine’s economy is in a bad state and the country needs financial support.
Media reports have suggested that Mr Yanukovych asked Russia for help, but no official statement was made about any loans to Ukraine from its largest neighbor. Russia nevertheless remains one of the key players in the game. The country’s president, Vladimir Putin, referred to Ukraine in his annual address last Thursday, saying that it may still join the customs union that now includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, if it wishes to do so.
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