Explainer: What exactly is going on in Ukraine?

Daragh Brophy
Explainer: What exactly is going on in Ukraine?

Mass street protests have been taking place in Ukraine since last month— the largest since the country’s pro-democracy ‘Orange Revolution‘ in 2004.

At the focus of the protest movement is the Government’s decision not to sign a pact that would bring closer ties with the EU, and pull the country away from the influence of Russia.

Yesterday, the country’s President held talks with Vladimir Putin on a new strategic partnership with Moscow, in preparation for a “future treaty”.

So what’s going on in the former Soviet state? What are the factors in the dispute? What’s likely to happen in the short-term? And what are the wider ramifications?

TheJournal.ie takes a look:

The eastern European nation shares a nearly 2,300 km border with Russia. It also borders six other countries — Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, as well as the Black Sea.

It has a population of 45 million people. The official State language is Ukranian.

Known as the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1922,  it declared itself an independent nation in 1991, with the fall of the USSR.


[Image: Google Maps]

Who is in power?

The pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich has been president since February 2010.

A divisive figure in the country — previously, he was the country’s prime minister under Leonid Kuchma. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that electoral fraud had been committed in his favour, he lost out on the presidency after second run-off vote, which followed the Orange Revolution protests.

Pro-West opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko then took power, before losing out once again to Yanukovych six years later.


Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych [Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/Press Association Images]

Yanukovych continued to lead the pro-Russia ‘Party of the Regions’ in the wake of his defeat, and served as second period as Prime Minister, under Yushchenko, between 2006 and 2007. He defeated the co-leader of the Orange Revolution Yulia Tymoshenko in a run-off vote in the 2010 election.

Controversially, Tymoshenko was jailed for seven years in 2011 for criminally exceeding her powers, a conviction viewed by the West as a case of selective justice.


Yushchenko and Tymoshenko during an Orange Revolution rally in December 2004 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]

Whatever happened to the Orange Revolution anyway?

After sweeping to power on a tide of popular support  following the protests of 2004, the relationship between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Tymoshenko soon turned sour.

Yushchenko fired her from the role late in 2005, but Tymoshenko was reappointed two years later (taking over from Yanukovych) as the ruling parties rebuilt their alliance. However, the two continued to be at odds for the rest of their time in power.


Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gather to protest electoral fraud in November 2004 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]

Though Yushchenko presided over some democratic reforms, progress towards EU membership was hampered by divided public opinion.

As the global economic crisis hit in 2008, voters placed much of the blame at the President’s door. Yushchenko won less than 6 per cent of the vote in the 2010 election, coming fifth.

Tymoshenko, however, remained comparatively popular, and made it through to the second round before being beaten by Yanukovych. International monitors rejected suggestions that the 2010 election had also been rigged.

Ousted as Prime Minister, she was convicted of abusing her powers during her time in office — agreeing to a 2009 gas deal with Russia which was seen to have damaged Ukraine.

Yushenko testified against his former colleague in the trial, which he called a “normal judicial process”.


Tymoshenko on trial in October 2011 [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]

What sparked the the new protests?

The Government had been working for years on a landmark trade deal with the EU which would have paved the way for the former Soviet nation to join the group, but Yanukovych backed out of signing the agreement last month.

It would have required Ukraine to adopt hundreds of EU laws, regulations and standards, along with a sweeping reform programme. In return, the agreement would have allowed for the abolition of visas for Ukrainian citizens, amongst other measures.

Ukrainian officials eventually admitted that the u-turn had resulted from Russian pressure. Moscow had threatened painful sanctions in order to keep the country from falling under further Western influence.

The decision led to a widening of the cracks between the country’s pro-European western regions and its Russian-speaking industrial heartland, and thousands of protesters took to the streets protesting the last-minute decision to back out of the deal. As many as 100,000 people turned out for a rally in the centre of Kiev last weekend.


A demonstrator holds a torn portrait of Yanukovych at a 29 November rally [Sergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images]

Opposition leaders, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who has declared his bid to run for the presidency in 2015, say the Government betrayed the people by balking after years of negotiations.

The demonstrators have been continuing their vigil this week — and on Wednesday, the country’s three post-Soviet presidents, including Yushchenko, released a statement lending their support to the movement.


Vitali Klitschko and other opposition figures at a rally last weekend [Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Press Association Images]

The failure of the deal also stemmed from Yanukovych’s refusal to free Tymoshenko. The EU had been calling for her release as part of the agreement, but Tymoshenko herself offered to drop her demands to be freed if the President went ahead with the agreement without linking her to it.

What are the opposition’s demands?

The opposition had initially wanted see Yanukovych sign the so-called ‘Association Agreement’ and ensure Tymoshenko’s release. But his failure to sign the deal, and a violent police crackdown on protesters last weekend has hardened those demands.

The three main opposition parties in parliament now want both the President and his Cabinet to step down and call snap elections.

Opposition supporters have set up a ‘tent city’ on Independence Square, blocked the main government building, occupied Kiev’s City Hall, and called for a general strike that has seen officials walk off their jobs in some western regions. There were around 5,000 demonstrators maintaining a presence in the city centre yesterday.


Protesters eat at their tent camp in the central Independence Square in Kiev [Ivan Sekretarev/AP/Press Association Images]

Tymoshenko went on hunger strike on 25 November over the Government’s decision to suspend the signing of the agreement. Her lawyer said on Wednesday that the 53-year-old had become ‘seriously weakened’ as a result, before her daughter confirmed yesterday that the former prime minister was ending her protest on the request of the Independence Square protesters and ‘EU leaders’.

Where does Russia stand on all of this?

Vladimir Putin’s previously described the break-up of the USSR as one of history’s great tragedies, and wants to see the former Soviet states loosely realigned in a trade and military bloc led by Moscow.

Central to the Russian leader’s vision is a ‘Customs Union’ that, besides Russia, already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Putin wants to build the alliance into an economic counterweight to the EU — a dream all but impossible to achieve without Ukraine’s involvement. He hinted this week that the protests have somehow been instigated by Western powers, calling them “pre-planned” and saying they “seem more like a pogrom than a revolution.”


Yanukovych and Putin signing agreements during a meeting in Moscow last year  [Alexei Nikolsky/Photas/Tass/Press Association Images]

During a visit to Armenia on Monday, Putin sent a clear signal to Kiev, showing the economic advantages of remaining under Moscow’s wing by slashing Armenia’s natural gas price by 30 per cent. Armenia had also, until recently, been eyeing a pact with the EU, but is now entering negotiations to join the Customs Union.

And the West?

The European Union has called on both the authorities and the opposition to show restraint, saying it is ready to resume talks on the Association Agreement.

Lacking influence on the course of events in Kiev, however, Brussels has made no fresh efforts to persuade Yanukovych to adopt a more flexible position.

Speaking this week, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle lobbed a thinly veiled jab at Russia, saying “the threats and the use of economic pressure which we have seen over the last year are simply unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, the US has urged Ukrainian authorities to heed the demands the thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said this week that Washington stood with the protesters, stating, “We urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom.”


US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland holds talks with Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Leonid Kozhara in Kiev this week [AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky]

So where does that leave us?

Under pressure from both the east and west, Ukrainian officials have taken some contradictory steps that suggest a leadership crisis. Speaking on Monday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov denounced the protests as an attempted “coup”. On Tuesday, he offered a formal Government apology for the excessive use of police force.

Yanukovych is insisting his government still hopes Ukraine will one day join the European Union, but has put forward new financial conditions for any deal.


Protesters clash with police outside the presidential office in Kiev last Sunday [Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Press Association Images]

Azarov said this week that the Government was “ready for dialogue” with its opponents, but he stressed that EU leaders should discuss the agreement with the authorities, not the opposition.

“Nazis, extremists and criminals cannot be partners in Euro integration,” Azarov told the German foreign minister.

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko has called on the West to impose sanctions against Yanukovych and his family, as the nation’s worst political crisis in a decade continues.

The opposition has called for another mass protest tomorrow at midday, which will likely be a crucial test of the movement’s ability to sustain its challenge to the current administration.


Kiev, last Sunday [Sergei Grits/AP/Press Association Images]

Includes reporting from AFP

Read: Ukraine protesters take over mayor’s office and set up ‘Revolution HQ’

Also: Clashes rage as 100,000 Ukrainians protest in Kiev

Last month: Tens of thousands protest in Kiev over EU agreement delay

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