On 16 January the parliamentary majority in the Ukrainian parliament rushed through a number of provisions designed to curb the Euromaidan protests that have now gone on for two months. Today after a rally of roughly 100,000 people, radicals began attacking the police. Where this will lead is unclear, but it seems likely that events will finally attract the attention of western media sources that have until now shown only limited interest. To help people who are picking up the story now I have prepared the following primer that provides background information and about the general events and protests that will be helpful in assessing where things go from here.
Why are there protests in Ukraine?
Since becoming president in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych has said he wanted to have closer relations with Europe. The fruit of the negotiations were an association agreement (not full membership but closer ties) that was to be signed at the EU summit in Vilnius at the end of November. A bit over a week before the summit, Yanukovych made known that he would not be signing an agreement. In response, a journalist called on people to come to Kiev to demonstrate in support of the agreement in the hope Yanukovych would change his mind. The protest gathered at the square in downtown Ukraine known as Independence Square or Maidan, hence the name Euromaidan for the protests. By the time of the summit over 100,000 people came to Kyiv and others protested in their home cities as well, but Yanukovych did not change his mind, and people began returning home. By the morning of November 30 only a few hundred people were still in downtown Kiev, and that would have been the end of it, but in an act of impatience or just plain stupidity the police attacked the remaining protestors and arrested some claiming they had been provoked despite video evidence to the contrary. Similar actions of aggression by the government just when the protests were losing steam have sustained the movement gathering as much as 1,000,000 people to the square at major rallies held every Sunday.
That event shifted the focus away from the association agreement to a general rejection of the Yanukovych government, in favor of respect for “European Norms” which included the rule of law and a rejection of rampant corruption, which has long been a problem, but became particularly visible since Yanukovych’s election in 2010 with Yanukovych’s family becoming a major beneficiary. Further, having rejected Europe Yanukovych had to turn to Russia for financial aid, as the Ukrainian government is has a huge revenue shortfall that needs to be taken care of. Putin was more than willing to cooperate, but at a price that would seriously undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. In the short to medium term the debt obligation was structured such that Putin could use it to control of the gas pipelines that run through Ukraine, and other infrastructure. Under the agreement Ukraine would be required to join the customs union of former Soviet states that would be led from Moscow, which is widely understood as an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Empire and the end of an independent Ukraine
The Maidan and the Opposition
The maidan protests were not called by the political opposition, and if one can speak of a single organizer or inspirational figure that got the ball rolling, it was a Mustafa Nayem, a journalist of Afghan heritage, who had been in the process of setting up an internet tv news channel along with some other journalists. They had planned to go on the air by the end of the year, but went live after Yanukovych first announced he was not signing the European association agreement. Hence there are comparisons with the occupy movement and this summer’s protests in Turkey. What is more, while the official opposition leadership has been quite visible at the maidan, much to frustration of the protestors they have not shown themselves to be particularly effective individually, or as a group. A number of what might be called moral authorities are present, some are members of the previous government, others have shown initiative in developing novel ways to protest.
Part of the problem has been that short of storming parliament and taking over the government the maidan protests have no mechanism to affect change. The parliament is controlled by Yanukovych’s supporters in the Party of Regions, and excepting a couple of delegates who broke with the Party of Regions after 30 November, Party of Regions delegates have found it easier to back Yanukovych than seek out a way to redeem themselves. As a result, the Party of Regions has increasingly been seen by the opposition not as a political organization but as a criminal organization. The political opposition is also divided. Svoboda for example supports the protests, and has generally adhered to the nonviolent ethic of the protests, but its philosophy is generally antithetical to that -- it is not a coincidence that the spontaneous acts of rebellion like the tearing down of the Lenin monument were initiated by Svoboda activists. Svoboda, however, is the smallest of the three opposition parties and its support is highly concentrated in the west of the country. Indeed, their activities are most likely to alienate people in the East. Further, because the maidan has emphasized non-violence, and until 19 January shown remarkable discipline, it has until recently focused on forcing Yanukovych to negotiate and work with them. In short, even as the opposition and most definitely many of the people supporting the Maidan protests, has regarded Yanukovych’s actions as illegitimate, they have been unwilling to act on that premise and proclaim themselves an alternative center of power. So until now there has been no one ready to seize power.
The East-West Factor
In talking about Ukraine the differences between East and West and their significance for contemporary events are invariably raised. Those differences are generally seen as dating back the the partition of Poland when all but the most westerly regions of what is now Ukraine came under Russian rule. While it is from this region that the name Ukraine, which translates to borderland, originates, the Russian Empire successfully limited the appeal of Ukrainian nationalism through a variety of punitive and coercive tactics. The Habsburg administration which controlled the extreme west by contrast adopted policies that encouraged the development of a distinct Ukrainian political identity. This included supporting the Greek Catholic Church, which was slowly suppressed in the Russian Empire as heretical. Those differences persisted after the the Russian and Habsburg Empires collapsed at the end of World War I, especially after Stalin reversed the encouragement of Ukrainian language culture that had been encouraged by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. The famine of 1933 also killed millions of Ukrainian speaking peasants, and Russian became the language of progress. In interwar Poland, Polish was of course the dominant language but Ukrainians continued to promote their culture. World War II brought the two groups together when Stalin annexed Eastern Poland in 1939 and reasserted control of those regions again in 1944-1945. During the war though some Ukrainians in the West cooperated the Nazis and others supported the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, generally referred to by as the UPA (pronounce U-Pa), which sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state out of the chaos. Some members of the UPA also cooperated with the Nazis, but more importantly they fought the Soviets Army. This meant that many Ukrainians who joined the Great Patriotic War against Fascism were shot at by people from the UPA, while Soviet troops ultimately crushed the UPA after a guerilla campaign that carried on into the 1950s. How this divided memory of World War II should be dealt with has not yet been resolved, and as such remains a tool for demagoguery.
As the Soviet Union collapsed, those historic differences worked in strange ways to push Ukraine towards independence. People in the west focused on reinstating Ukrainian language as the dominant language. In the east the driving concern was an economic decline, which the conservative party and management elite blamed on Moscow, imagining that freed of Moscow they could avoid major reforms. That of course did not happen, but as the historically richer part of the country, the South and East of the country has dominated questions of economic development, while at least until the 2010 election lip-service was paid to the expansion of Ukrainian in the public sphere. During the 2004 elections the East-West very much visible, and there were significant numbers of people in the East who were as ready to mobilize in support of Yanukovych, even if not quite in the same numbers as those who demonstrated in favor of Yushchenko, who ultimately won that election after his Orange Revolution supporters forced a rerun of the run-off elections due to evidence of voter fraud in the first run-off.
Today, the situation is more complex. While the majority of people who have joined the protests in Kiev come from the west or the center of the country, and the local maidan protests in the eastern cities are much more sparsely attended than those in cities, support for Yanukovych is weak. Although they may be sympathetic to the argument that the Association Agreement with Europe would have hurt their economic interests, many are aware that until mid-November Yanukovych had supported the Association Agreement too. They also are aware that he has done little to deal with the deep economic problems in the East, where the oligarchs have opted to exploit existing conditions and low wages rather than introduce capital investments. There is massive rural unemployment there, and it is worth noting that while the center and west is still the junior economic partner, that is where much of Ukraine’s profitable high tech sector is located. As such the East-West divide is still present, and is played up by Yanukovych and his supporters, it is not as large a cleavage as it was ten years ago.
Key Government Figures:
Viktor Yanukovych -- President and de facto leader of the Party of Regions Party. He is from the mining and industrial center Donetsk. As a young man he was convicted at different times for rape and theft, but managed to become a leading figure in Donetsk politics after the Soviet Union collapsed. In 2004 after massive voter fraud which led to the so-called Orange Revolution he lost the presidency to Viktor Yushchenko after a rerun of the elections. Since being elected in 2010 he has become increasingly dictatorial while his dentist son has become one of the richest men in Ukraine over the past 3 years.
Viktor Yushchenko-- president from 2005-2010 and leader of Our Ukraine coalition. As head of the Ukrainian national bank he oversaw the introduction of the Hryvna in 1996 and in 2004 was selected as the most viable opposition candidate to Yanukovych. Leonid Kuchma. In the run-up to the 2004 election he was poisoned which disfigured his skin. Having benefited from the Orange Revolution he found it difficult to work with the most visible leader of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, and replaced her with Viktor Yanukovych. A move that many democrats resented. He has limited clout today, but may be enlisted as an elder statesmen.
Leonid Kuchma -- President of Ukraine from 1994-2005. Initially responsible for major reforms like the introduction of the Hrivna currency and the final passage of the constitution in 1996. After 2000 he became increasingly authoritarian and is widely viewed as responsible for the beheading of the crusading anti-corruption journalist Hryhorii Gongadze in 2002. Although he picked Yanukovych as his preferred successor in 2004, he refused to crush the Orange Revolution to the great irritation of Yanukovych. He too may be enlisted as an elder statesman.
Mykola Azarov -- Prime Minister of Yanukovych’’s government since 2010 and a close ally of Yanukovych.
Victor Medvedchuk -- close Putin ally and leading “political technologist” associated with the Party of Regions. [Political technologists are associated with what in Russia has been called “managed democracy” they specialize in what we would call astroturf and creating the illusion of democracy and pluralism but in ways that reinforce state power.] He is reputed to have urged Kuchma to crush the Orange Revolution protests. He is close to Yanukovych. At the moment of writing Medvedchuk does not hold an official government position, but there are rumors that he might get one with the reshuffle that began today, which saw moderates lose their positions
Dmytro Tabachnyk -- Not a central player in the current controversy, but controversial for his dismissal of Ukrainian culture and his promotion of Russian. He has publicly stated that the people of Western Ukraine belong to a different culture than Ukrainians in the center and East, and so is rhetorically important for encouraging tensions between east and west.
Vitaly Zakharchenko -- Minister of the Interior. A former police official in Donetsk he was head of the State tax administration before he acquired this job. At the tax administration he happily engaged in selective prosecutions to further Yanukovych. He is seen as a hardliner who may have been behind the police engagement with the protestors on the night of December 10-11.
The Opposition Leaders
Yulia Tymoshenko (Timoshenko when transliterated from Russian) -- Former president candidate who lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 elections. From Dnipropetrovsk she was closely involved with the natural gas industry and was connected with Pavlo Lazarenko, who was successfully prosecuted in the U.S.A. for money laundering related to massive embezzlement from the Ukrainian government. This association dogs her, and played a role in her losing to Yanukovych. An oligarch, i.e. a a person with huge wealth gained during the initial period of privatization, she nonetheless cultivated an image as person committed to real reform, which she further burnished as the most charismatic leader of the Orange Revolution. This allowed her to become prime minister after Yushchenko was acknowledged the winner of the 2004. As prime minister she re-privatized some major companies that were deemed to have been sold off well below market value. She also instituted the most transparent gas contracts with Russia harming the interests of oligarchs connected with Yanukovych, which many believe led to her dismissal. Thus despite her past and lingering suspicions about her motives, her short period as prime minister offered a glimpse of what real reform might look like in Ukraine. After Yanukovych was elected she was arrested and found guilty of abuse of her office. Although possibly an important figure, she is at this point a symbol of Yanukovych’s misrule.
Vitaly Klichko -- former world champion boxer is a newcomer to politics, but as is so often the case this along with his popularity as a Ukrainian boxing hero who has proven himself in a most macho way is much of his appeal. His party UDAR is committed to anti-corruption. Despite the goodwill, he has not stood out as an effective leader during the protests, although he has come the closest to condemning right-wing extremists involved in the protests.
Arsenyi Yatsenyuk -- from Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine and current leader of the Batkivschyna (fatherland) party faction in parliament that was originally founded by Tymoshenko. Not a natural ally of Tymoshenko, he got his first position at the national level in 2007 when he was made foreign minister in the Yanukovych cabinet under President Yushchenko. Several years ago Yatsenyik suggested that Tymoshenko’s predecessor party, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, along with the Party of Regions made up a single party, but allied himself with Batkivshchyna in 2012. He has also disappointed as a voice of leadership during the protests.
Oleh Tyahnybok -- leader of Svoboda party who has been associated with the Ukrainian far-right since the 1990s. He has made anti-semitic and anti-Russian statements in public, most notably an incident in 2004 when he gave a speech at the gravesite of a commander of the WWII era Ukrainian Insurgent Army. In recent years, he has toned down the open anti-semitic rhetoric, which has helped him become a significant figure. While he supports the Euromaidan his politics make him an awkward supporter of closer ties with Europe.
Petro Poroshenko -- Arguably he is as much an opposition figure as an oligarch. Unlike other oligarchs, however, his primary investments are in consumer goods, which are not so dependent on cheap raw materials from Russia. (If you are in the right place, you can get his Roshen brand chocolate candies here in the states and they are excellent.) At the turn of the millennium he was supportive of Leonid Kuchma, but in 2001 he began to support Viktor Yushchenko and did so through the Orange Revolution. He served in the Tymoshenko cabinet as foreign minister, but it was his resignation among others that led Yushchenko to dismiss Tymoshenko. Among his holdings are the Channel 5 tv station which is the one most openly sympathetic to the current protests. Although not visible at the protests in the same way as the above three leaders, he is well positioned to become a compromise candidate for president if Yanukovych and his Party of Regions loses power in the coming weeks.
Rinat Akhmetov -- Ukraine’s richest man. His holdings are in metals and mining based in the Donbas in the southeast of the country. A long-time ally of Yanukovych. Like all other oligarchs he acquired his fortune by using Soviet era connections to buy companies well below market value.
Dmytro Firtash -- Leading Oligarch with investments in the energy and chemical sector and an ally of Yanukovych. He is co-owner of RosUkrEnergo which is involved in titanium, but more controversially was a beneficiary of the secretive natural gas contracts between Russian Gazprom and Ukraine. He owns the tv channel Inter which has covered the current protests more responsibly than some other channels including the state owned tv, but there is no sign that this reflects a readiness to abandon Yanukovych.
Victor Pinchuk -- Leading oligarch who profited from being the son-in-law of Leonid Kuchma. Of the oligarchs he is the most interested in portraying himself as a philanthropist. He has remained relatively neutral regarding the current protests, but there is no evidence he is eager to jettison Yanukovych.
Party of Regions (PR) -- Party founded in 2001, although it has earlier precedents, as a party to support Kuchma. The idea behind the name is that it recognizes that Ukraine is made of diverse regions, but from the outset it has represented the interests of Eastern Ukraine where heavy industry predominates. It’s base is Donetsk. While there are some supporters in western Ukraine, especially in the far west Zakarpatia region and Bukovina, It has also been committed to breaking with the effort to make Ukraine the hegemonic language of the state and the media. In the 2012 parliamentary elections it won a total of 210 deputies (115 constituencies and 95 assigned through proportional representation). A very few deputies have left the party as a result of events since November.
Batkivshchyna -- Like the Party of Regions it has a pre-history, but what is important is that it is the successor to the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc coalition. Up until 2011 smaller political parties were allowed to coordinate and form voting blocks. It continues to promote Tymoshenko’s reform agenda, but misses here leadership. It has considerable support in central and western Ukraine among those interested in promoting change and the further development of a civil society. In the 2012 election it won a total of 101 seats (62 constituencies and 39 assigned through proportional representation). In the 2012 elections it began cooperating with both Svoboda and Udar by not running candidates against each other in many districts.
UDAR -- Th Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform. The party grew out of an alliance of left of center parties, including the Ukrainian Social Democrats. Its central concern is rampant corruption. At has a wide-base of support, especially in central Ukraine. It has a total of 40 seats in parliament (6 constituencies and 36 assigned through proportional representation)
Communist Party of Ukraine -- A hold over from the Soviet era, it has been gradually losing its support as its supporters age. Its politics can be rather quirky. For example, after the initial crisis brought on after protestors were beaten on the night of November 30, its leadership rejected the no confidence motion put forward by the other opposition, but then offered its own, which was not allowed for reasons of parliamentary procedure. Nonetheless, its members were apparently among those that supported the legislation allowing a crackdown on the current protests passed yesterday.
Svoboda -- Perhaps the most controversial of all Ukrainian parties. It stands on the far right of the political spectrum and grew out of organizations that emphasized ethno-nationalism. It sees itself as the direct successor of the interwar Organization of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War II. Historically electoral support for these ideas has been weak. In the past several years, its leaders have toned down the rhetoric, which has made them seem more palatable to a larger group of voters, especially after Yanukovych’s election in 2012 after which laws privileging Ukrainian language throughout the country were reversed. Its support is strongest in the west. The vast majority of its voters live in three western oblasts. It runs the district council in the western city of Ternopil and gained 30% of the vote in local elections in 2010, and in the 2012 parliamentary elections it won 36 seats (all assigned through proportional representation). It has been very active in the protests and it controls the Kyiv City Hall building, which was occupied early in the protests.
Controversy: Its popular support worries many people, who see it as a classic fascist party which if it were to gain power would implement the xenophobic and radical nationalist agenda that it advocated until fairly recently. While there is good reason to believe that its relative success in the 2010 and 2012 elections was in part the result of tactical voting, this does not mean that after gaining power its leaders would feel any more restrained than Yanukovych has. Since the protests there has been significant debate about whether scattered acts of aggression, including the peaceful dismantling of the Lenin Statue in Kiev, were the acts of Svoboda radicals or provocateurs wearing Svoboda regalia. Both sides have mustered evidence to support their perspectives, but regardless of one’s conclusions, it is certain that the prominence of Svoboda, and especially the torchlight parade in honor of UPA hero Stepan Bandera on 1 January have been used by the Yanukovych regime to attempt to discredit the maidan.