When the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected an EU trade agreement in favour of an economic deal with neighbouring Russia he must have felt fairly pleased with himself. At a time when Ukraine is in dire economic straits he successfully persuaded the Russian president Vladimir Putin to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian bonds and slash the cost of Russian natural gas imports. The former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, hailed the agreement with Russia as preventing imminent bankruptcy and social collapse.
However, this agreement came at a heavy price. Far from preventing social collapse the decision to snub the EU and establish closer ties with Russia sparked outrage amongst Pro-EU Ukrainians who took to the streets in Kiev to protest. This protest movement (now known as ‘Euromaidan’) has since evolved. In recent weeks protests have spread beyond Kiev to regions of Ukraine traditionally thought to be loyal to President Yanukovych. The protesters’ demands have also evolved. Protesters are no longer just fighting for EU integration they are fighting for a democratic Ukraine where government officials respect human rights and uphold the rule of law.
In the last few days the Ukrainian government has made a number of surprising concessions to protesters. On 28 January 2014, Mykola Azarov resigned from his post as Prime Minister. This resignation, which subsequently entails the resignation of the entire cabinet, has been accepted by Yanukovych. In another move the Ukrainian parliament has annulled controversial anti-protest laws which banned protesters from wearing helmets or blockading public buildings. The parliament has also passed a law providing amnesty to detained protesters once occupied buildings are vacated.
Whilst such concessions are welcome they do not atone for the brutal manner in which the authorities have dealt with protesters. Videos which have surfaced online show riot police viciously attacking unarmed protesters with truncheons whilst they lie helplessly on the ground. Journalists are not immune from the violence. On 25 December 2013, civic activist and journalist Tetiana Chornovol was hospitalised after being severely beaten by a group of men. She is well known for her investigations into corruption amongst government officials. In some cases the violence has proved fatal with several protesters having been killed.
Whilst we should all be appalled by this brutal crackdown on protesters, we should not necessarily be surprised. Since becoming president in February 2010 Viktor Yanukovych has presided over an increasingly authoritarian regime which has little tolerance for dissent. A prime example of such repression is the 2011 trial of former Prime Minister, and political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko for abuse of office (See my earlier article on the plight of Yulia Tymoshenko: https://refusetobesilent.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/the-rise-and-fall-of-yulia-tymoshenko/). After finding her guilty of abusing her office in a 2009 gas deal with Russia a Ukrainian court sentenced her to seven years imprisonment. She is currently serving this sentence in hospital in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. In April 2013 the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the pre-trial detention of Tymoshenko was motivated by reasons other than ‘on reasonable suspicion of [her] having committed an offence’. Amnesty International also condemns the prosecution as politically motivated.
As violence in Ukraine reaches new heights it is crucial that an agreement is reached between President Yanukovych and the opposition movement as soon as possible. Too many lives have already been lost. After the Orange Revolution in 2004 the Ukrainian people looked forward to a new, democratic Ukraine. Now, a decade later the Ukrainian people are once again fighting for democracy. This is a fight which Mr Yanukovych cannot win.
Amnesty International, ‘Jailed former Ukraine prime minister must be released’: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/jailed-former-ukraine-prime-minister-must-be-released-2011-10-11
BBC News, ‘Russia deal saved Ukraine from bankruptcy – PM Azarov’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25427706
— —‘Ukraine protests ‘spread’ into Russia-influenced east’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25905031
— —‘Ukraine parliament passes protest amnesty law’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25955644
CNN, ‘Ukrainian civic activist and journalist beaten outside Kiev’: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/12/25/world/europe/ukrainian-journalist-beaten/
The Guardian, ‘Ukraine’s president accepts resignation of PM after protest laws annulled’: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/28/ukraine-resignation-pm-protest-laws
Tymoshenko v Ukraine (ECtHR, 30 April 2013, para 300)