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» Society » Euromaidan: Summary of Events and Significance for Ukraine

Euromaidan and Further Developments: Summary of Events and Significance

Written Dec. 13, 2013; last updated April 15, 2014

The events that began as the so-called "Euromaidan" demonstrations will go down in history as one of the critical sociopolitical periods in Ukrainian history. This article will be updated to reflect important developments. So far it has three parts, describing the state of affairs as of: 
- December 2013
- March 2014
- mid-April 2014.

As of late December, 2013...

What is Euromaidan?

"Euromaidan" is the popular name for protests that began on November 21, 2013 following the Ukrainian government's unexpected decision to halt preparations for signing an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union (links take you to Wikipedia). After just a few weeks, the protests have evolved into a general protest against the government, particularly: abuse of power, corruption, bureaucracy, lack of justice, and disrespect for citizens (see article on Ukraine's government machine).
The word maidan in Ukrainian [майдан] means "central square" and has come to refer to large-scale demonstrations taking place on the central square of a city. The Euromaidan protests are centered in Kiev, site of the Orange Revolution of 2004. Smaller protests have been taking place in other cities around Ukraine and abroad.

How did Euromaidan evolve into a broad anti-Government protest?

A key factor has been the government's attempts to forcefully end the peaceful demonstrations in Kiev. Of particular significance was the demantling of the protesters' camp at the Kiev Maidan at 4:00 a.m. Nov. 30 by Berkut special forces. Berkut troops beat demonstrators and journalists indiscriminately, evoking a very strong social outcry. The next day the size of the demonstration at the Maidan swelled to several hundred thousand. The theme of protests crystallized into a general protest against Yanukovich and his government and everything they represent. The mood of the protests has also changed; demonstrators — especially those who hold camp at night — are increasingly prepared for the possibility of violence.

How broad is support for Euromaidan in Ukraine?

I don't have any figures, but the majority of Ukrainians support a European trajectory for Ukraine. That doesn't necessarily mean membership in the EU, but it does mean things like democratic society, the rule of law, and personal freedom. Most Ukrainians are also dissatisfied not only with the current government, but with the entire bureaucratic apparatus, the "System." I think it is safe to say that the current protests — the largest since the Orange Revolution — enjoy broader support and sympathy around Ukraine and represent a stronger unifying force than the Orange Revolution.

How is Euromaidan different from the Orange Revolution?

The 2004 Orange Revolution had very clear and simple aims. It was a protest against election fraud. Euromaidan has become a much broader and more fundamental protest against the government. The Orange Revolution led to a repeat vote in which Viktor Yuschenko won the presidency. With Euromaidan it is currently unclear which actions could be considered a "resolution" of the conflict.

Have the protests been violent?

Protests and police reaction to them have been more violent than the Orange Revolution protests. Hundreds of people have sustained injuries (including police and special forces), but as of yet no one has died. People have been disappointed with the results the Orange Revolution for many years, and many do not believe that systemic change can be achieved with peaceful demonstrations alone. Also, the current government is commonly viewed as consisting in large part of criminal elements. The use of force against demonstrators by special forces confirms this sentiment.

As of late March, 2014...

Over 100 dead, hundreds injured in violent clashes with riot police

Indeed, Euromaidan did become a historical turning point for Ukraine. In the period of February 18-20 the government resorted to brutal violence against demonstrators, eventually killing over 100 (named the "Heavenly Hundred," or Небéсна сóтня — Ukr.) and wounding hundreds in a dramatic standoff seen around the world on TV and Internet video. Hundreds more protesters have gone missing and are thought to be dead, probably lying in forests outside Kiev. Torture and other forms of cruelty were used widely. Maidan demonstrators also defended themselves violently against riot police attacks, killing nearly 20 special forces and injuring many more.

Yanukovich ousted; new government faces political and economic problems

Shortly after signing an agreement to hold presidential elections in December 2014 with opposition leaders, Yanukovich unexpectedly fled (as it turns out, he had been packing his bags at his Mezhihirye residence for at least three days) and reappeared in Russia several days later. There he has continued to make occasional televised appearances, making ever more absurd statements in line with Russian propaganda (see below).
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) voted in a temporary acting President (Turchinov) and a Prime Minister (Yatseniuk), and since then many changes in government have been taking place, such as a vote to return to the previous version of the Constitution which substantially limited executive (presidential) power compared to that of the Parliament. Presidential elections were moved to May and there is much talk of holding general Parliamentary elections sooner, too.
The country is on the verge of bankrupcy and the government has been taking fairly drastic steps to bring the country's finances under control. The West has promised new low-interest loans, while Russia has raised the price of natural gas for Ukraine substantially. The new government in Kiev is also on the verge of signing an EU association agreement — the same agreement Yanukovich and Azarov (his Prime Minister) failed to sign in November, sparking the Euromaidan demonstrations in the first place. There has been talk of offering Ukrainians visa-free entry to Europe and even extending EU membership to the country within the next couple years.

Russia's plans for Ukraine

In late February, however, Euromaidan turned from being a story about Ukrainians' disagreements with their own government into a geopolitical entanglement with massive international ramifications. Immediately following Yanukovich's disappearance, the Kremlin began the next phase of a large-scale operation whose long-term aims — taking back part or all of Ukraine — have practically become common knowledge in Ukraine and abroad.
Russia has not recognized the new government in Kiev as legitimate and has painted Ukraine as a fundamentally unstable entity and a half-baked state where nationalist (actually, the rhetoric is "fascist") radicals and "extremists" supported by the West unlawfully overthrew the elected government and threaten the rights and safety of ethnic Russians across the country. Moscow propaganda, effectively conveyed through centrally controlled and tightly censured television stations, has both reflected people's worst fears and formed them. The propaganda paints the West as enemies of Russia and has stirred up hatred and fear of largely nonexistent Ukrainian "fascists" who seek through violent means to take away Russian speakers' rights to use their own language and culture. This viewpoint has gained limited traction abroad, but is very widely believed within Russia and has been influential in Russian speaking parts of Ukraine where many people watch these channels. As I've written before, Ukrainians and Russians are very prone to believe in various conspiracy theories.

Why Russian propaganda is so alarming

Russian media convey a siege mentality where the whole western world is out to get Russia, and systematically dehumanize Euromaidan demonstrators, the new government in Kiev, Ukrainian nationalists, and — to a degree — ordinary citizens who are in favor of moving Ukraine towards Europe politically and economically. This dehumanization is particularly alarming because it is coming from a position of power — the side that is in a much better position to take the offensive. Essentially, it gives Russian and pro-Russian forces free license to employ violence against protesters, Ukrainian government representatives, journalists, etc. because their actions will be displayed in a favorable light in Russian media and will be protected from punishment.

Crimea annexed by Russia following dubious change of Crimean government and improperly held memorandum

In a matter of weeks following the overthrow of Yanukovich's government, Crimea has effectively been annexed by the Russian Federation. The peninsula has always been the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine and has enjoyed special administrative status within Ukraine as an "autonomous republic" (partly in name only). Over the past few years, polls had shown stable support for the idea of rejoining Russia at roughly 35-40%. In the March 16 memorandum 97% of participants supposedly voted for joining the Russian federation, but there were numerous procedural issues: participation was under 50%, international (non-Russian) observers were not let in, non-local Russians took part in the vote, people were able to vote multiple times in different locations, pre-memorandum campaigning was exclusively pro-Russia, access to Ukrainian television channels was cut off leading up to the vote, and physical intimidation was used against those expressing a pro-Ukraine position. Furthermore, according to the Ukrainian Constitution, a referendum to allow part of the country to leave Ukraine must be held at the national level.
Preparation for an annexation scenario had been taking place for weeks, months, and years in advance. Beginning in late February, so-called "little green men" (зелёные человéчки — Russ.) — well-armed and obviously well-trained miliatiamen in green military clothing without any identification markings — appeared suddenly at important infrastructure sites, government buildings, and Ukrainian army posts around the peninsula, taking sites and even ships by storm or siege. Accumulated evidence plainly demonstrates that the miliatiamen were/are Russian forces.
One of the first actions was a storm of the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol. A large number of parliamentarians were ushered into the building by "little green men," who allowed no media presence, cameras, etc. There, under dubious circumstances, a vote was held and a Prime Minister of the autonomy was chosen — Sergey Aksenov, leader of the "Russian Unity" (Русское единство — Russ.) party, which had garnered a mere 4% of the vote in the previous parliamentary elections.
For whatever reason, the Ukrainian government undertook virtually no action to prevent these events. Land borders were left open, Ukrainian army forces were not ordered to guard key infrastructure, checkpoints were not set up on the roads leading out from Sevastopol (where the Russian navy has a base), etc. etc. Ukrainian commanders waited for instructions from Kiev and received none.

Crimean Tatars opposed to joining Russian Federation

The most adamant supporters of a Ukrainian Crimea are the Crimean Tatars — the pensisula's most permanent inhabitants, who now make up a bit over 10% of the population. The Tatars boycotted the March 16 referendum, overwhelmingly support the new government in Kiev, and supported the Orange Revolution of 2004. Several mass emigrations took place under Russian rule beginning in the 1770s, and the entire Crimean Tatar community was deported to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944, with somewhere around one third of the population perishing en route or shortly thereafter. The Tatars only returned 45 years later, beginning in 1989. The Crimean Tatars are Sunnite Muslims with very little tendency (so far) towards religious extremism. Recent events, however, suggest increasing risks of inter-ethnic conflict. The entrances to Tatar communities are now vigilantly guarded by locals, who lack firearms.

International reaction

The March 16 memorandum and Russia's actions within and surrounding Crimea have been widely condemned by the international community, led by the West. Russia has been kicked out of the G8 group of world powers, which is now back to "G7." The UN Security Council's resolution on Ukraine condemning Russia's actions, which requires unanimity to take force, was vetoed by Russia alone in a 14-to-1 vote. The UN General Assembly voted in support of Ukraine's territorial integrity by a very wide majority, with Russia's position being shared by a handful of countries such as Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, etc. China and its allies currently maintain a cautiously neutral stance.
The relatively weak nature of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West reflect Europe's energy dependency upon Russia's oil and particularly natural gas, transnational business risks, and fear of Russia's large nuclear arsenal. However, increasing oil and gas production in the U.S. through fracking operations and increasing European energy independence have been slightly weakening Russia's grip on the energy sector. Western powers are very averse to an armed confrontation in Ukraine and have been urging Ukrainian leaders to avoid direct confrontation. At the same time, Yanukovich was overthrown only through active resistance at the cost of a few hundred lives, and history demonstrates that 1) international powers step in to offer support only when a resistance movement is already underway, and 2) appeasement tends to cost more lives in the long run.

Risks to continental Ukraine

As of late March, according to NATO and Ukrainian government reports, Russia has amassed a large military force in the proximity of Ukraine's northern and eastern borders. It is uncertain whether Russia plans to actually send troops into Ukraine or simply to use their looming presence as an intimidating and destabilizing force while continuing to work behind the scenes in Ukraine in a manner similar to the Crimean scenario. Now the disputed territory of Transdnistria — a thin strip of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine — has also asked to become part of Russia. One of the Kremlin's scenarios involves taking control over mostly Russian speaking eastern and southern Ukraine to create a strip of land joining Transdnistria with the rest of Russia.
The prospect of provocation, war, and occupation is now tangible in many parts of Ukraine, but people are weary from all the demonstrations, standoffs, political changes, and alarming news. Given Putin's position towards Ukraine and Moscow's long-term interest in determining Ukraine's fate, it seems unclear whether the Ukrainian state will even survive the next few years.
The Euromaidan may be over, but greater trials lie ahead.

As of mid-April, 2014...

Crimean scenario being repeated in Eastern Ukraine

To the dismay of Ukrainians, Russia has initiated a repeat of the Crimean scenario in eastern Ukraine in view of Ukraine's political and military weakness and relatively mild international response (harsh verbal condemnation and increasing political isolation, but fairly light economic sanctions).

Low popular support for rejoining with Russia and for federalization

Russia insists on turning Ukraine into a federation, and its actions in eastern and southern Ukraine seem to be aimed at taking over much of Ukraine's territory. But what do Ukrainians themselves think of this?

Level of support for joining Russia under 50% across all of Ukraine, even in east and south

A nationwide poll conducted Feb. 21-25 showed shown the highest levels of support (41%) for rejoining Russian in Crimea (memorandum organizers on March 16 claimed 97%). Popular support for rejoining Russia in eastern and southern Ukrainian regions currently under pressure from Russian and pro-Russian forces is: 33% in Donetsk oblast, 24% in Lugansk and Odessa oblasts, 17% in Zaporozhye oblast, and 15% in Kharkov oblast. In each of these regions most people would like to preserve the current status of relations with Russia — as two independent and friendly states.
Support for rejoining Russia is at 12% across Ukraine, down from 20% some years ago and up from 9% before the Euromaidan events. Among those under 30 support is 5%; for those above 55 it is 17%. By macroregion: East — 26%, South — 19%, Center — 5%, and West — 1%.
In Russia 16% of people would like to see Ukraine part of Russia.

24% of Ukrainians support the federalization of Ukraine

Polls conducted in mid-March showed that most Ukrainians (61%) support a unitary form of statehood (what Ukraine currently has), 24% support federalization, and 15% are unsure. Three years ago those numbers were 50%, 25%, and 25%, respectively; in other words, more Ukrainians today support the current form of statehood than before. Unitary government enjoys the most support across all of Ukraine except the Donbass (Donetsk) region, where 59% are for federalization.

5% of Ukrainians support rejoining Crimea to Russia

And 77% support preserving its current status as an autonomous region within Ukraine, while 11% support "demoting" it to the status of a regular oblast. Three years ago these numbers were 4%, 60%, and 23%, respectively. The largest percentages of people who support giving Crimea to Russia (19%) are to be found in southern Ukraine.

Low support for separatism

87% of Ukrainians would be against the Donbass region separating from Ukraine, and 9% would support it. 83% would be against Halychyna (western Ukraine) separating, and 8% would support it. Support for separating has actually risen from 2% and 5%, respectively, in the past two years, but only in the far east and south. In the Donbass region a full quarter of respondents support the simultaneous separation of Donbass, Halychyna, and Crimea from Ukraine.