Behind the Headline: Ukrainian protesters seize control of capital, Yulia Tymoshenko freed

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko waves to supporters after being released from prison. Image from the Associated Press.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko waves to supporters after being released from prison. Image from the Associated Press.

Months of street protests and numerous lives lost in police clashes have led to this: an abandoned presidential residence flooded with protesters dancing and shouting in jubilation. The man who normally lives there, Viktor Yanukovych, has fled the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and as of press time, he was believed to be in the town of Kharkiv. However, he insisted in a public statement that he has not resigned his post and is still the president, calling the protesters’ seizure of the capital a “coup d’etat” and comparing their actions to the Nazi seizure of power in 1930’s Germany. In spite of his assertions, the Ukrainian parliament has sided with the protesters, declaring Yanukovych removed from office and freeing former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko had been serving time on charges of exceeding her constitutional powers during her term in office, charges that her supporters have always claimed to be completely baseless. As I write this, Tymoshenko is speaking to supporters in Kiev, while some eastern provincial governments have declared their support for Yanukovych and are refusing to obey the revolutionaries in the capital, calling them “fascists” and “gangs”.

The ongoing situation will likely change quite rapidly in the hours and days ahead, as the escalating protests and turmoil that have rocked the country since November finally reach their climax. All of this begs the question, what, exactly, sparked these events? What are Ukrainians so divided over? Why is this happening now? It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

What are all the protesters angry about?

Ukrainian protesters now control the streets of Kiev. Image from Jeff J Mitchell and Getty Images.

Ukrainian protesters now control the streets of Kiev. Image from Jeff J Mitchell and Getty Images.

On the surface, this is about a trade deal that wasn’t. Last year, Ukraine was preparing to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, opening Ukraine’s borders to allow German cars, French wines, British tech gadgets, and so on to reach Ukrainian consumers far more easily, while also removing barriers for EU-based businesses to invest in Ukraine. On November 21, the very day President Yanukovych was to sign the deal, he backed out and declared that Ukraine wouldn’t sign up after all. This shocking news sent thousands of Ukrainians into the streets, demanding Yanukovych sign the deal. Just a few days later, Ukraine got a $15 billion bailout from Russia to help pay down its national debt, leading many to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin had convinced Yanukovych to back out of the EU deal. This angered the pro-EU protesters even further, though it should be noted that there were also counter-protests supporting Yanukovych and his policies at the same time.

For months, these protests showed no signs of stopping. One of Ukraine’s most popular boxers, Vitali Klitschko, became a major figure in the protest movement, and more militant groups such as the ultraconservative Svoboda party joined in as well. The government has gone back and forth between trying to suppress the protests and trying to negotiate with the protesters, but things turned ugly when violence erupted last week. Both sides blame each other for starting the violence, videos emerged that appeared to show police snipers firing live rounds at the protesters, other police officers chose to switch sides and back the protesters instead of participating in the bloodshed, and within 48 hours, there were 77 people reported killed. Multiple truces were called and ignored, until this morning, when Yanukovych fled.

Surely events this dramatic aren’t just about trade, right?

The results of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. Image from the Washington Post.

The results of the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. Image from the Washington Post.

No, they most certainly are not. In many cases, the real target of the protesters wasn’t trade at all, but corruption, a perennial problem in Ukrainian politics. Visitors to the now-abandoned presidential residence have been blown away by the life of luxury that Yanukovych seemed to be living off of taxpayer money. Transparency International, a corruption watchdog group, ranked Ukraine one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Many Ukrainians report that they pay bribes just to receive basic services because it is “customary and expected”.

It goes even deeper than corruption, though. Ukraine is a country that is in a very strange place politically, culturally, and economically. I once had a college professor who was originally from the Ukraine, who explained that the western half of the country sees itself as culturally closer to western Europe, while the eastern half sees itself as culturally closer to Russia. This has an impact on the way Ukrainians vote – easterners tend to support pro-Russian politicians like Yanukovych, while westerners tend to vote for more pro-European figures like Tymoshenko or Klitschko. This division even extends to the most basic activity of everyday life: talking. Westerners speak Ukrainian, while easterners speak Russian.

This is why that EU trade deal was so important to the protesters. As Max Fisher wrote for the Washington Post, “supporting EU integration is a little like supporting ‘not Russia.'” This is also why those eastern provinces have sided with Yanukovych and refused to recognize the revolutionaries. This is also why this is the second time in the past decade that Ukraine has undergone political turmoil.

Wait, what? This has happened before?

Celebrations after the Orange Revolution in 2005. Image from AFP.

Celebrations after the Orange Revolution in 2005. Image from AFP.

Oh, yes. In 2004, a presidential election was held between Yanukovych and Viktor Yuschenko, and that election was marred by fraud and corruption. It also didn’t help matters that someone tried to poison Yuschenko. When accusations appeared that authorities in several districts had fixed the election results, people took to the streets in protest. This “Orange Revolution” saw massive strikes, investigations into the allegations of fraud, accusations that the investigators were corrupt, and an intervention by the Ukrainian Supreme Court. Yuschenko’s supporters mainly came from the Ukrainian-speaking, pro-Western camp, while Yanukovych’s supporters came from the Russian-speaking, pro-Russian camp. In the end, the election was re-run with much more careful monitoring, and Yuschenko won by a very narrow margin. In this case, Yanukovych chose to accept these results in order to keep things from turning violent.

So, how did Yanukovych become president? And who is Yulia Tymoshenko, and why is she important?

It turned out that many Ukrainians were disappointed with Yuschenko’s presidency. When he ran for re-election in 2010, he came in fifth place. This time, the top pro-Western candidate was then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had taken office on the coattails of the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych decided to run again on the strength of his pro-Russian backers. Again the race was close, and again there were accusations of fraud, but this time when Yanukovych was deemed to have won by a very narrow margin, the Supreme Court didn’t intervene, effectively upholding the results.

Not long after Yanukovych took power, he had Tymoshenko arrested on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement based on her actions as Prime Minister. The case stemmed from a deal she brokered between Ukraine and Russia that allowed Russia to continue pumping inexpensive natural gas to Ukraine, after a contract dispute had halted gas deliveries for 13 days. Though Tymoshenko was convicted of all charges and sentenced to seven years in prison, both her supporters in Ukraine and many outside observers accused the government of trying to silence her and shut her out of Ukrainian politics. The fact that several prison guards were accused of beating her unconscious only made her case more sympathetic. The EU made her release and pardon a condition of their trade deal with the Ukraine, and many protesters had demanded her release throughout the recent crisis.

Why should I care about any of this?

It may very well impact your wallet, albeit indirectly.

If it seems like the past decade has seen Ukraine as a pawn in a big geopolitical game between the West and Russia, that’s because of just how important Ukraine is to the world economy by accident of geography. Russia is one of the world’s leading providers of oil and natural gas, and the biggest conduit they use to ship their fossil fuels out to the wider world. Most of Europe depends on Russian natural gas shipped through Ukraine for heat and electricity. If this gas is shut off, it would mean much higher utility bills throughout Europe.

This is a worrying prospect for the United States as it negotiates a free trade deal with the European Union. This deal, if passed, could boost the US economy by as much as $123 billion, something that our still-recovering economy could clearly use. If European customers don’t have the cash to pay for Made-in-USA goods because of higher bills, though, this economic boost could be in jeopardy. As stated earlier, though, the situation is still developing and could radically change in the near future. How this will all play out is yet to be seen.

2 Responses to Behind the Headline: Ukrainian protesters seize control of capital, Yulia Tymoshenko freed

  1. Pingback: Non-Stop Thrills for an Afternoon Out | Cat Flag

  2. Pingback: Behind the Headline: Crimea “votes to join Russia”, U.S. and EU impose sanctions | Cat Flag

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