Ongoing protests in the Ukraine began to escalate today leading to the first deaths related to the demonstrations this year. Following a warning from Ukrainian Prime Minister that the government would respond with force to increasingly agitated protestors, police stormed several protester camps that had been established in the capital of Kiev. So far at least two protesters have died in the clash with police and the violence remains ongoing, raising the potential for even more casualties.
The situation in the Ukraine escalated as the country is observing “Unity Day,” a holiday to commemorate the establishment of the modern Ukrainian state by combining several smaller territories in 1919. Efforts had been made by both the current and previous Ukrainian governments to “repackage” this particular holiday in order to better capture nationalist sentiment within the Ukraine. This is significant as a large number of protesters can be described as “nationalists,” favoring a strong and independent Ukraine. Unity was not what occurred on this day however as protesters continued their demonstrations against the government.
The situation in the Ukraine is poor in many respects but there is one issue that is paramount to the protesters. The Ukrainian government under President Viktor Yanukovych has rejected a proposed agreement that would align the Ukraine with the European Union (EU) and instead pursued a new relationship with Russia. For many Ukrainians, this brings back unpleasant memories of the Cold War when the Ukraine was ruled from Moscow as a part of the Soviet Union. Older Ukrainians recall the days of Soviet domination, and younger Ukrainians are very nationalistic, not wanting to see the Ukraine controlled by an outside force.
Protesters also question whether Russia can do more to assist the Ukrainian economy than the EU could, making Yanukovych’s decision to lean towards Moscow even more controversial. The EU is seen as a robust economic force, one that could aid in modernizing the Ukrainian economy and creating broader opportunities for trade and growth. Russia, while stronger today than in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, could serve to isolate the Ukraine economically as it would be “locked in” to trade with Moscow, so claim protesters. This led to what was seen today as the Ukraine protests escalate leading to the first deaths seen this year.
The protests have been ongoing since November of 2013 when Yanukovych first announced the “pivot” towards Moscow and away from the EU. The past two months have been marked by little in the way of compromise between the two groups. The president is committed to his pro-Russia stance and the protesters remain opposed. As the violence escalated today, Yanukovych was in the process of meeting with the leaders of three factions representing the protesters. Little progress was made at the meeting however, and today’s fatalities may serve to only increase tensions further, making each side even more unwilling to compromise and resolve the crisis.
The situation in the Ukraine is attracting much of the world’s attention, but the protests are not isolated to Kiev. Similar demonstrations are ongoing in several cities throughout the Ukraine, indicating that the concerns of the protesters are a matter of national interest, not simply those of the capital. President Yanukovych may find himself in an increasingly difficult situation, faced with the demands of Ukrainian nationalists on one side, and an increasingly powerful Russia on the other. Embracing one will antagonize the other, leaving little room for a peaceful solution. The future for the Ukraine remains unclear as protests continue to escalate, leading to the first deaths associated with the demonstrations this year.
By Christopher V. Spencer