Ukraine’s protests explained
Pro-European Union activists wave celebrating riot police leaving form the Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. (AP / Sergei Grits)
Published Wednesday, December 11, 2013 2:35PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 11, 2013 11:16PM EST
Ukrainians have been protesting in the streets since November, urging President Viktor Yanukovych and his government to forge closer ties to the West.
Here’s a look at what propelled protesters into the streets, what they’re demanding, and what’s at stake.
Trade deal: what’s at stake?
Demonstrations erupted in November after the Ukrainian government pulled out of a European Union agreement in favour of trade ties with Russia.
According to surveys, nearly half the country’s citizens supported the pact with the 28-nation EU.
Ukraine is the largest country, besides Russia, to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Located between Russia and the European Union member states, its trade is split fairly equally between the two.
David Kramer, president of the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, said Ukraine has enormous industrial, economic and agricultural output, and is a transit country for Russian gas to Europe.
“It’s a very important country and, for Russia, it’s extremely important: it’s a fellow Slavic nation, and there is a lot at stake,” he told CTV News Channel.
Yanukovych, whose government has been criticized for inconsistent economic policies, said his country was too economically fragile to sacrifice trade with Russia.
But former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told CTV News Channel that the country missed a “huge opportunity” to forge closer ties to the EU, which “would have opened up the prospect of a free trade agreement that would have allowed Ukraine exporters access to 500 million consumers.”
After refusing to sign the trade agreement with Europe, EU leaders accused Russia of threatening and bullying Ukraine to keep the country in step with Moscow, and of pressuring the country to join a trade bloc that includes Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
“The Russians view it as a fight; Vladimir Putin views these issues in zero-sum terms. In other words, if Ukraine were to move westward to closer relations with the European Union, he would see that as a defeat for Russia,” Kramer said.
How did the protests start?
After the deal was suspended, thousands of demonstrators poured into Kyiv’s main square to demand that Yanukovych and his government sign the landmark agreement with the EU, which would make the country more western-oriented.
In early December, hundreds of thousands of protestors besieged the president’s office and government buildings, calling for the ouster of the prime minister and his Cabinet. Dozens were injured, as police drove back protesters with tear gas, flash grenades and truncheons.
On Dec.8, protesters gathered in the streets of Ukraine’s capital, toppling a statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the country’s largest anti-government protest since the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.
Recent protests echoed revolts against communism, as Ukrainians knocked down and smashed the statue of Lenin, handing out the pieces of stone, like chunks of the Berlin Wall.
The Orange Revolution was a peaceful pro-democracy movement that saw thousands of protestors gathering in the same Kyiv square, eventually overturning a fraudulent presidential election and ushering a pro-Western government into power.
The revolution had swept Yanukovych from office and brought in Yulia Tymoshenko’s pro-western government to power.
In 2010, Yanukovych returned to power, drawing on support from eastern Ukraine.
The following year, Tymoshenko, who co-lead the Orange Revolution, was convicted of abuse of power and was sentenced to seven years in jail.
The EU has been pressuring Yanukovych to free his political opponent, and considers the former prime minister’s imprisonment political motivated.
Many protesters rallying in Independence Square, angered over Yanukovych's refusal to sign the agreement with the EU, carry pictures of Tymoshenko.
Protests had been largely peaceful until the Ukrainian government ordered the dispersal of the demonstrators, prompting clashes between citizens and riot police tearing down their barricades and tents. Demonstrators put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at the police lines in an attempt to keep them from the centre of the protest camp on Kyiv’s Independence Square.
Police pulled back yesterday, issuing a statement saying there would be no attempt to disperse the demonstrations.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned the police action as “undemocratic and excessive.”
What’s the latest?
On his way back from a state visit to China, Yanukovych met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Dec. 6, to discuss closer co-operation between the two nations.
Yanukovych's office said the talks centred on economic co-operation, trade, and preparations for signing a partnership agreement.
On Dec.11, Yanukovych said he was prepared to negotiate to end the protests, but opposition leaders say they want the president to resign and call new elections.