Ukraine’s protest ban has led to the largest and most violent protest in the country’s recent history. The Ukraine’s population has two large ethnic groups, Ukrainians, 77 percent, and Russians, 17 percent. The Russian minority looks towards a stronger relationship with Russia, while the Ukrainians want a strong relationship with the European Union. The government of Ukraine has to manage both relationships in order to grow the Ukrainian economy in face of economic recession in Europe. However, the Ukrainian majority believe that undue influence is exercised by Russia behind the scenes, and wants full membership of the EU as soon as possible.
The latest unpopular act by the Ukrainian government is the attempt to pass new laws that prevent public protest, which has brought Ukrainians onto the street in unprecedented numbers. The protest have become increasingly violent, as stun grenades and flares have been thrown. An attempt by protesters to gain access to the Ukrainian parliament was blocked by rows of police, and were busses used as barricades.
The laws were passed and supported only by MPs loyal to President Viktor Yanukovych, and have been strongly criticized by the U.S. and the EU, with the U.S. holding freedom of assembly as one of its constitutional rights.
The protest movement started when the President withdrew from an important EU treaty seen as vital to the Ukraine’s future by many ethnic Ukrainians, apparently under huge pressure from Moscow. The protest ban was widely seen as an escalation of government suppression in Ukraine.
Opposition politicians have been addressing the crowds of protesters and asking them to ignore the new laws, and enter into a series of acts of civil disobedience.
The anger of the crowds was taken out on the police lines blocking the path to the parliament, with flash-bangs, flares and even fire bombs thrown at them. One of the busses used as a barricade had its windows smashed and was later set on fire.
The police response has been limited so far, with police sheltering under riot shields and throwing CS gas and their own flash-bangs, back at the protesters. The government reported that 30 policemen had been injured, with one temporarily held hostage by the protesters.
The protesters claim that the police have been attacking them, gassing opposition leaders, and then stealing mobile phones from them.
Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion, has been calling for calm, but has continued addressing the crowds and demanding that they ignore the anti-protest laws. Other opposition figures have gone further, with a former admiral claiming that a coup d’etat is planned by the current leadership, and asking that all Ukrainian soldiers to ignore illegal orders from the current government. He demanded that all soldiers follow their oath to the Ukrainian people and not aid a repressive government.
The protesters have continued their presence in freedom square in freezing temperatures, and are camped there in direct opposition to the anti-protest laws that were recently passed.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the Ukrainian government a deal where Ukrainian debt would be slashed and cheap natural gas would be made available to the country. Much of Ukraine’s energy comes from coal, and the coal industry is deeply suspicious of the EU as they believe CO2 emission curbs will damage or even destroy their industry. They are powerful backers of the current government, and many of the workers in the industry are ethnic russians.
The Ukraine’s protest ban will remain in place, and this confrontation will continue until the country’s position with either the EU or the Russian Federation is resolved.
By Andrew Willig