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Ukrainians Are Protesting in the Street for a European Future

They want Russia and Putin to stop meddling in their affairs.

by Annabelle Chapman, Photos: Jacob Balzani Lööv
28 November 2013, 10:45am

Fed up with what they see as Russian interference in their political affairs, Ukrainians have returned to the streets. For several days now, pro-European protesters have been flocking to central Kiev. On Sunday, a massive 100,000 people attended, according to the BBC. That makes the demos the largest display of public dissent in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in 2004.

They also coincide exactly with the eighth anniversary of the Orange Revolution, when Ukrainians camped out on the Maidan – another name for Independence Square – to protest against forged elections. Last year, on the 22nd of November, a small crowd gathered on the Maidan to mark the Orange Revolution's seventh anniversary. One woman held a lonely orange. As the evening cold set in, they headed home, subdued. It seemed like the revolutionary spirit of 2004 was gone for good.

Now the anthems of the Orange Revolution, with titles like “Get up” or “Together There Are Many of Us” can be heard again. Tents have been set up, just as they were in 2004. The protests are concentrated on two squares in central Kiev: the Maidan and the nearby European Square, at the end of Khreshchatyk, the city's main avenue. The turnout has been impressive enough that they've earned comparisons to the Orange Revolution – rightly or not.

The demonstrations were sparked by the Ukrainian authorities' decision last week to suspend the signing of a major deal that would have brought the country closer to full EU membership. If recent polls are to be believed, over half the Ukrainian population were in favour of the deal being signed – hence the large show of pro-European love on the streets of Kiev.

Relations between Brussels and Kiev have not been great lately. They soured over the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine's former prime minister, who is serving a seven-year term in her home country on charges of abuse of power. Many observers see her sentence as politically motivated, implying that Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yanukovych, just wanted to get her out of the way because she is his main political rival. The EU said the deal would only be signed if 52-year-old Tymoshenko was allowed to go to Germany to receive medical treatment. Yet last week the Ukrainian parliament rejected draft laws that would have allowed her release.

The Ukrainian authorities' decision to drop the EU deal follows concerted Russian pressure on Ukraine. This week, Russia's president Vladimir Putin called the EU-Ukraine deal a “big threat” to the Russian economy and urged EU officials to keep their noses out of Kiev's decision. Instead, Moscow wants Ukraine to join its Customs Union, a sort of Russian alternative to the EU that would lump Ukraine in with two other post-Soviet states, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Neither are what you'd call democratic.

At the Kiev marches, one young man carried a placard: “Putin, if you love us – let us go”. This pretty much sums up the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine, which dates back centuries. Rather than join Russia's orbit, many Ukrainians want the country to take its future into its own hands. A number of young parents brought their offspring to the protests with them, calling for a better future for them that they feel could be achieved through European integration.

Many see the demonstrations on the Maidan as a chance to express their views as citizens. "This is a maidan, not protests," Kostyantyn Strilets, a young photographer who designed the UkraineEUkraine logo, told Ukrainska Pravda, a major online newspaper. "This is a maidan of dreamers who are putting their dreams into action."

"I just want to live a normal life," said one young woman, who took part in the Orange Revolution nine years ago. "I want to walk down the street and for it to be as boring as in Brussels. With nothing happening. Without worrying about what will happen tomorrow."

Andriy Bondar, a writer, said: "I came [to the Maidan] for boring Europe. Boring, conflict-free, democratic." For the photographer Oleksandr Zakletskyi, "The EU is not the Schengen zone [that allows people to travel without border checks], nor the euro currency. It is, above all, respect towards people, respect towards you, respect towards others, respect for the law." 

Not all of the protesters fully support the EU. "I'm not sure that the EU association agreement is the right decision at this stage. But I am absolutely sure that the Customs Union is not the right decision, either," said Maksim Yakover, the founder of Chasopys, a fashionable Kiev hangout, explaining why he was at the protests. 

The pro-European demonstrations have spread across Ukraine and beyond. (Euromaidan has reached London too, with demonstrations in support of Kiev this week.) In Lviv, a city at the country's western edge, crowds gathered by the statue of Taras Shevchenko, the vague Ukrainian equivalent of Shakespeare. But there were also protests in Ukraine's mostly Russian-speaking East. While not all Ukrainians support the EU deal, it is providing a new rallying point for Ukrainians critical of Yanukovych and his cronies.

The revolutionary feel has spread across the internet. On social media, the hashtags #євромайдан and #евромайдан (that's #euromaidan in English) have proved particularly popular, while footage from the protests has been streamed live by sites including hromadske.tv, a civic media initiative started by Ukrainian journalists. The protests have been another chance for Ukrainians to make fun of their president, with memes portraying him in a variety of uncomfortable positions: balancing between Europe and Russia (think Van Damme's Volvo advert), wondering whether to plunge into a crowd of protesters, and even digging his own grave.

The scenes in Kiev also drew some less welcome figures: fearsome Berkut riot police, brought in to keep the demonstrators in check. (Fittingly, the name Berkut comes from a type of eagle.) Scuffles near government buildings led to tear gas being used against protesters. On the whole, though, the demonstrations have proceeded peacefully.

Still, what have the protests actually accomplished? The EU's Eastern Partnership summit, where Ukraine's deal with the EU was expected to be signed, begins on Thursday the 28th of November. Top politicians from the EU, Ukraine and nearby countries including Georgia and Moldova will gather in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Top EU politicians say that signing the deal is still on the cards. “The EU will not force Ukraine to choose between the EU or any other regional entity,” their statement read. (“Regional entity” meaning Russia, of course.) At the same time, they officially acknowledged the pro-European protests: “Ukrainian citizens have again shown these last days that they fully understand and embrace the historic nature of the European association.”

Ukraine's opposition politicians have supported the protests. In a scene straight out of a James Bond film, Vitaly Klitschko, a heavywieght boxing champion and leader of the opposition UDAR party, was banned from landing at either of Kiev's two airports on Sunday. Instead, the plane landed in Krivyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine. From there, he covered the 450km distance to Kiev by car, arriving as it was getting dark. Klitschko, who spent many years in Germany, is a leading supporter of “European living standards” in Ukraine. Meanwhile, on Monday Yulia Tymoshenko began an “unlimited hunger strike” in solidarity with the protesters, demanding that President Yanukovych sign the association agreement.

Yanukovych himself was very quiet over the weekend. Then, on Monday, he emerged to reassure the population that Ukraine is still on the European path. The following day, he went as far as to congratulate the protesters: “I applaud those who went out onto the Maidan in support of European integration,” he told Ukrainian journalists in an interview. But, as last week's decision to suspend the EU deal shows, Yanukovych's pro-European rhetoric needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt.

Meanwhile, some are concerned that the demos are being used as an excuse for domestic politicking, with opposition politicians co-opting them to gain voters' support. In contrast, they see the protests as a civic initiative, free from party symbols, flags and rivalry.

In one photo featured on the website of Kommersant, a Ukrainian news magazine, a protester carried a whiteboard with “For a Christmas without Yanukovych” scrawled across it. Despite the fact that most Ukrainians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, this is unlikely. Nevertheless, the shows of dissent in Kiev are set to continue at least until the Vilnius summit. They may die down after that, as people become discouraged. Or they may, some hope, escalate, just like they did in 2004.

 

 Follow Annabelle (@AB_Chapman) and Jacob (@lordcob) on Twitter. 

 

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