TSG IntelBrief: Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Movement
Boxing champion Vitaly Klichko during Euromaidan protest in Kiev, Ukraine
• Over the last four months Ukraine has experienced domestic discord and civil unrest, which fluctuated between peaceful protests, unsuccessful political negotiations and violence
• Protestors are angry over the government’s close alliance with Russia. For many Ukrainians, the current political situation serves as the last straw as Russia yet again exerts political control over Ukraine—an ongoing state of affairs since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union
• In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign an EU Association Agreement designed to draw Ukraine closer to Europe
• Widespread backlash manifested itself in the popular EuroMaidan Movement, which has reportedly grown to number more than a million members in Kiev alone.
The people and government of Ukraine are at a perilous and historical crossroads. Once known as Europe’s breadbasket, in recent years Ukraine’s financial fortune has changed dramatically for the worse. The nation’s economic troubles now are almost equal to those of Greece and are just as foreboding. Currently, Ukraine needs $10 billion in immediate capital to stave off bankruptcy, pay pressing debts, compensate government workers and satisfy pending gas contracts with Russia. The Fitch ratings agency has recently downgraded Ukraine’s bonds to a B-minus rating, which renders them “junk bonds.” It is this desperate need for capital that is directly influencing the geopolitical judgment of Ukraine’s leaders and consequently fouling the mood of the citizenry who had harbored hopes of closer financial ties to Europe via a once-pending EU association agreement. The Ukrainian president believes he has little time to act and but one venue for capital—Moscow—and the people are not pleased.
In 2013, over 25 percent of Ukraine’s exports were sent to the European Union, while 24 percent were sold to Russia. The close export statistics are symbolic of the current posturing between the EU and Russia for Ukraine’s economic, political and popular future. Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that Ukraine’s economy would have grown by an extra 12 percent over the long term had it signed the Brussels accord, which included economic reforms. Interestingly, unlike the case in Greece, Ukrainians appear willing to endure some EU austerity measures in the hope of improving their future standard of living. However, what they are apparently unwilling to endure is more Russian influence and domination over Ukraine’s national affairs, especially those of an economic nature.
European Union Integration; Coveted Alliance, Lost Opportunity
Ukrainians were first stunned and disappointed, but later angry when President Yanukovych refused to concur with the pending historic trade deal which was to have been signed in Vilnius, Lithuania in November 2013. To a concerned and agitated population, the president’s refusal was a subservient bow to Russia as political and economic master. Signing the agreement would have effectively (albeit not immediately) propelled Ukraine from Russia’s orbit of monopolized and restrictive trade while allowing for eventual EU membership. The EU Association Agreement was popularly viewed as the national equivalent of an opportunity-of-a-lifetime. Instead, the people were shocked to find Ukraine’s ties with Russia strengthened—and not to Ukraine’s long term benefit.
Ukrainians acted en masse and in frustration. Protests throughout Ukraine have emphasized defacing and destroying symbols of Russian and Soviet influence. In the towns of Berdichev, Berezovka, and Andreevo-Ivanovka statues of Vladimir Lenin were defaced or destroyed. Perhaps most notably, the Lenin statue in the central square of Ukraine’s capitol, Kiev, was toppled and completely demolished during pro-EU protests.
As far as Russia is concerned, Ukrainian discord seems to be little more than the cost of doing international business. Russian President Vladimir Putin neutralized Ukraine’s European Union designs by agreeing to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds and sharply reducing the price of natural gas. Practically speaking, Russia acted with speed and agility as the EU was outbid and Ukraine’s proposed agreement with the EU would have taken months, if not years, to bear fruit. This reality did not go unnoticed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who commented that Russia and the EU had been engaged in a “bidding competition” over Ukraine.A Wildly Popular Movement
For their part, Ukrainians have dubbed themselves “Eurolutionaries” who continue to demand and try to force Ukraine’s integration with Europe. The movement is youth-oriented and largely organized through social media. Leadership includes influential and popular members of Ukraine’s political, sporting and entertainment communities. During one recent protest, government forces were turned back amidst singing and chanting led by Ukrainian pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko. Such star power has attracted thousands of youthful protestors to get involved in widespread and organized protests—now labeled the EuroMaidan Movement (Maidan is Kiev’s main square and the scene of continuous protests). Lyzhychko is not alone in lending her name and energy to the movement or in calling for the president’s impeachment. Via Facebook, the widely-respected and popular Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem has repeatedly urged young and old alike to come to Maidan and express their dissent. Boxing champion Vitaly Klichko has issued calls for support of the EuroMaidan Movement. So too has Ukraine’s famous Orange Revolution political activist Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed by President Yanukovych in 2011. The high-profile support the EuroMaidan Movement has gained from cross-spectrum, respected, and well-known celebrities has provided the movement with a contemporary and exciting dynamic that is appealing to protestors and seems destined to add both breadth and longevity to its cause.
In the early days of the protests, public dissent was met with isolated and scattered arrests and calls for the protestors to stand down, though the government seemed committed to a peaceful resolution. That changed on January 17, when President Yanukovych signed several anti-protest laws, limiting freedom of speech, assembly and protest. The laws threaten fines and prison terms for speaking out against the government. The creation and distribution of anti-government or pro-EuroMaidan Movement written works and those of the opposition Fatherland Party and Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms are deemed “extremist materials.” Organizations that receive foreign funds (such as from EU member nations or groups) must now register as “foreign agents.”
The anti-protest legislation backfired as protestors hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at government forces and facilities. Riot police responded and six protestors are said to have been killed. The escalation in force became routine and protests became riots. The parliament annulled the new laws and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet resigned. On January 29, parliament’s protestor amnesty measure was not supported by opposition parties because other key demands—including the president’s immediate resignation and calls for early elections—were not addressed.
President Yanukovych, his cabinet and parliament remain in a contentious stand-off with opposition parties and the greater EuroMaidan Movement. Parliament won’t reconvene until February 4, and popular protests continue.
• While Ukraine’s next presidential election is not scheduled until 2015, major changes to the government may be on the horizon. On the morning of January 30, the Ukrainian government announced that President Yanukovych is on sick leave due to “acute respiratory disease accompanied by fever.” Opposition leaders are calling on the president to resign
• The EuroMaidan Movement is grassroots, independently strong, and locally motivated. It will continue to gain recognition and popularity throughout Europe—and close international observation of events in the Ukraine
• Ultimately—and ironically—President Yanukovych may be seen as the man who united Ukraine, by inciting protests among the nation’s disparate opposition groups, which spawned the EuroMaidan movement.
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