Fear and Loathing in Ukraine

Fear and Loathing in Ukraine

A New History of Conflict Between Ukraine and Russia

One of the big things on the news in the last few months has been the protests and revolution in Ukraine, followed by the Russian annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Here I will bravely attempt to give you a crash course in that recent Ukrainian history. Having lived in New Zealand for the last ten years and grown blissfully accustomed to the peace and stability on these remote islands, it’s pretty hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I could have lived through the revolution, a threat of civil war, and the invasion by our brotherly neighbour, were I to stay in Ukraine.

I still consider moving here with my mum at the age of 15 one of the luckiest things that has happened to me. I am both Russian and Ukrainian ethnically and I can tell you this for sure: had I stayed in either of those countries, I would have continued to live in poverty and have no prospects for higher education or a career that I wanted – not to mention having to give up most civil liberties that we so easily enjoy here. Having been lucky to swap that bleak future for a life in New Zealand, I have been nervously watching this critical period in Ukrainian history that has sucked Russia, the EU and the US into a whirlpool of conflicting interests.

The peaceful civil protests started in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in November last year. For the last decade or so, Ukraine has swung between integration into the EU and its long-standing political and economic affiliation with Russia. During my first month in New Zealand in 2004, the first wave of popular protests, dubbed “The Orange Revolution,” had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets, waving orange flags in support of the pro-European presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, claiming that his pro-Russian opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, had rigged the run-off vote. The carefully monitored re-election demonstrated that the pro-European president was indeed the popular choice. That elected President proved to be somewhat of a disappointment, however, making his opponent Yanukovych the Prime Minister for a period of time, only to become President in 2010. And so he remained until just over a month ago. A brief note on Yanukovych’s colourful track record: in 1967 and 1970 he was jailed twice for robbery and assault, later explaining it as “the mistakes of youth;” his alleged doctoral degree and professorship in Economic Sciences displayed on his website has no record of him ever lecturing or publishing any papers; during his presidency he allocated 40 per cent of the nation’s budget to his home region of Donbas, staffing police, judicial and tax services all over Ukraine with his “own people” and turning his family into the richest people in Ukraine; and, of course, let’s not forget his multi-billion dollar estate that he abandoned after fleeing his post in February, and being accused of transferring up to $70 billion from the country’s treasury into his foreign accounts. What else would you want in a leader?

So, last November, President Yanukovych decided to suspend the highly anticipated association agreement and free trade agreement with the EU that would open borders for goods and ease travelling restrictions. He instead chose to pursue closer ties with Russia, declaring that €610 million in loans from the EU wasn’t enough for Ukraine, which needed about €20 billion by his estimates. Russia, on the other hand, pressured Ukraine not to sign the deal with the EU; for instance, they blocked all Ukrainian exports into Russia in August 2013 and then offered €15 billion in loans and cheaper gas prices. So nearly a decade after the Orange Revolution, fed up with false promises and no change to their standard of living, about ten thousand protesters gathered on the Independence Square in Kiev (known as “Maidan”), carrying Ukrainian and EU flags and chanting, “Ukraine is Europe.” A few hundred meters away on the European Square (oblivious to the irony) three to four thousand protesters in support of Yanukovych were also gathered. At first, the Maidan protesters (known as Euromaidan) only demanded that the pro-European agreement be signed as intended. Then, on 24 November, the special riot police known as Berkut attempted to disperse thousands of peaceful protesters, which only attracted more protesters, especially university students, in the days to come.

On 30 November, Berkut carried out a violent attack on the protesters, injuring many students and journalists (the record number of journalists injured in Ukraine’s independent history since 1991), eventually succeeding at dispersing the protesters from the square. The following day, on 1 December, protesters came back in numbers multiplied many dozens of times; that is, 400,000 - 800,000 demonstrators in Kiev alone. They proceeded to take over the Kiev city hall and set up a tent city in the main square. Now the protesters, represented by the opposition leaders (including the former heavy-weight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko) had a list of demands: the resignation of the current president Yanukovych and several of his ministers; the release of political prisoners (including the former PM Yulia Tymoshenko arrested by Yanukovych in 2011), jailed protesters and journalists; the return to the Ukrainian constitution of 2004, which was amended by Yanukovych when he became a president in 2010; as well as the signing of the agreement with the EU. In December the protests swelled around the country, with people living in tents in freezing cold temperatures, shrouded in snow, drinking hot soup, and determined to stay as long as it takes until their demands are realised. In response to that, Yanukovych has graciously accepted the “economic lifeline” from Putin, signing the deal with him in December in which Russia was agreeing to buy €15 billion of Ukrainian debt and reduce gas prices three fold. Surprisingly, this didn’t solve the problem.

On 16 January, with the protests going strong for almost two months, Yanukovych’s government passed a series of anti-protest laws that would have people arrested and jailed for wearing a helmet or a mask at a protest, pitching tents in public areas and blocking public buildings. Violent clashes between Berkut police and the protesters followed on 22 January, resulting in the deaths of several protesters, including two killed by gunshots, and two members of the police. From then onwards, the Maidan started more and more to resemble a battlefield, with barricades and fires everywhere, and the armies on both sides shrouded in shields and fire smoke. The protesters who were strong enough to fight started carrying hand-made metal shields and Molotov cocktails, while the rest of the protesters brought them food and medical supplies. The beautiful square in Kiev that I visited as a kid was now a vision from some apocalyptic nightmare. The world was watching in horror as Ukraine was closer than ever to a civil war. In many other cities, mainly in the western part of Ukraine, people have taken over several administrative buildings and councils, using them as dormitories, as well as feeding and medical bases. In the words of the leader of one non-violent resistance group, occupying state buildings:

Our aims and ideology are [a] democratic ... republic of Ukraine, which we have in our constitution but unfortunately don’t have in practice. There is no sense in trying to continue a conversation with a terrorist state which is a threat for people. So only our tough behaviour can change the situation. Right now it’s a proxy war between Ukrainian people and the Russian Federation and their puppet regime here [in Ukraine.]

He added that he could be captured and taken away any minute by the pro-government forces. Many journalists and activists in December and January have been kidnapped, tortured and left to die in the cold, attracting the world’s media attention. The culprits are not known, but the protesters who set up search centres to look for the missing people suspect it to be a collaboration between the Yanukovych’s Berkut police and other pro-Russian criminal groups.

On 25 January, President Yanukovych offered the opposition leaders senior jobs in his cabinet, including that of Prime Minister. The offer was rejected and the call for Yanukovych’s resignation continued, much to the cheer and approval of the Euromaidan protesters.

The political opposition parties involved in the protests constitute a number of different parties (one headed by the aforementioned boxer-turned-politician Klitschko), including the more militant and nationalistic far-right party that was on the frontline of the violent clashes between the police and the protesters in January through to February. The prevailing opinion of the Euromaidan protesters was not to affiliate with any particular party, as the movement was widely seen as the Ukrainian people’s fight for independence and not any particular political agenda. However, Russian media propaganda has promptly put the whole Euromaidan movement under the far right “Neo- Nazi” umbrella, labelling the whole movement “fascist,” as well as the new interim government in Ukraine and pretty much anyone involved in the anti-Yanukovych protests. By March, after Russia had invaded Crimea and the huge Russian propaganda machine had started churning, the referendum adverts hanging everywhere posed Crimea in fascist colours and swastikas against Crimea in the colours of the Russian flag; basically saying, “Choose who you want to be with.” Self-awareness and irony is apparently lost on them (just search on Wikipedia “German annexation of Austria.”) It is important to point out, however, that according to many different opinion polls in Ukraine only about half of the Ukrainians, mostly of the younger generation, support the Euromaidan protest movement, whereas the other 40-50%, made up of mostly older Ukrainians who were born and lived through the Soviet Union, are much more pro-Russian. This more or less even divide makes Ukrainian “identity” crisis even more fraught with peril and future violence.

At the end of January, the parliament annulled the anti-protest laws and the PM has resigned, apparently to stop the bloodbath and the looming civil war. Yanukovych offered an amnesty deal to the protesters in which he promised to release all jailed activists if the protesters would vacate the buildings in 15 days. Between 14 and 16 February, protesters vacated the state buildings and the charges against 234 protesters, jailed since December, were dropped. But by 20 February, some of the bloodiest clashes between Berkut police and the protesters occurred, with an estimated 82-100 people killed, including 13 police officers, and over a thousand people injured. Many protesters have been killed by sniper fire, which outraged many Western leaders and could sadly be linked to Russia, who had reportedly transferred an additional €2 billion to Yanukovych hours before the police attack was ordered. Classified documents released by the former Deputy Interior Minister of Ukraine have shown that Russian officials have been advising Ukrainian police on how to crush the protests.

By the end of this, Yanukovych lost his majority in the parliament with many members of his party either fleeing or resigning, and the opposition suddenly were in power. The parliament proceeded to pass a series of laws that removed police from Kiev (the dissolved Berkut police has swiftly proceeded to receive Russian passports and move into Crimea where they are more welcome), released all the jailed activists and impeached Yanukovych as a president. Yanukovych first fled to my home city of Kharkiv on the border with Russia, and then received refuge in Russia. The early Ukrainian election is set for 25 May, while the interim government has finally managed to sign the hard fought agreement with the EU.

As for Crimea, the detailed events of Russia’s swift and relatively painless invasion this month will be covered in another issue of Critic. I can only say this: even if the referendum and the annexation by Russia were illegal according to the pacts between the two countries, the majority of Crimean citizens, who are ethnically Russian, seem to be pleased with how the tables have turned. And, indeed, Russia has a good claim on this peninsula that has been a part of Russia for centuries until the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, in 1954, gifted Crimea to Ukraine. My only hope is that the take-over of the Crimea is where Russia will stop, while Ukraine will finally have a chance at democratic election.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2014.
Posted 7:01pm Sunday 30th March 2014 by Mariya Semenova.