To American euro skeptics, it might sound strange that 100,000 people would camp out in the cold in Kiev demanding that Ukraine be allowed to form an association with the supposedly ailing European Union. But that is exactly what has been happening as demonstrators rallied last week, with banners proclaiming “For a European Ukraine” bearing European yellow-and-blue ribbons and wrapped in European flags, in the Ukrainian capital and in many other towns in the country.
The protests were prompted by the Ukrainian government’s unexpected decision on November 21 to abort its preparations for signing the important and popular European Association Agreement with the European Union in Vilnius on November 28. Instead, the government yielded to threats of sanctions from Moscow and said it would restore Ukraine’s trade with Russia, recognizing that the cause was Russian sanctions. The decision looked like a major victory for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
For three days, Ukrainians and all concerned with Ukraine were full of disappointment and sadness. A number of demonstrations took place, but all were small with only a few thousand participants. Probably wisely, the Ukrainian opposition leaders called for 100,000 people to demonstrate in Kiev for European integration on Sunday, November 24. Expectations for the turnout were low, so it came as a surprise that the united democratic opposition mobilized at least that number and perhaps twice as many.
Kiev was the scene for the biggest demonstration since the Orange Revolution in November–December 2004. The demonstrators have occupied the two central squares and camped out next to the Cabinet of Ministers building. Channel 5, a cable television channel, and a couple of web television channels have broadcast the events around the clock, allowing everybody a full view of the events.
The key slogans have been “For a European Ukraine!” “Ukraine with the EU!” “Shame!” and “Honor to Ukraine!” Anti-Russian slogans are conspicuously absent. Beyond the large numbers, the calm demeanor, order, and discipline of the protestors have been impressive. It was like the Orange Revolution all over again, but no discredited orange was to be seen, only blue and yellow, which are both the European and Ukrainian colors. EU flags dominate, while the three main opposition parties (Fatherland, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform [UDAR], and Freedom) also waved their flags. Well-disciplined men set up dozens of tents in straight lines to occupy the squares. A big stage was set up with loudspeakers. Between the politicians, leading Ukrainian musicians appeared.
Two of the three opposition party leaders took the stage: Fatherland leader Arseniy Yatseniuk and Freedom leader Oleh Tyahnybok were there, while UDAR leader Vitali Klitschko, the most popular opposition party leader, could not attend because the government closed all Kiev airports when he was about to fly in. His brother Vladimir stood in for him. Most of the Orange Revolution leaders were also there, notably Yulia Tymoshenko’s first deputy, Oleksandr Turchinov, former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, and the big businessmen and former foreign minister Petro Poroshenko. Tymoshenko was represented by her daughter Evgeniya, and big screen displays showed her mother. This was a picture of a united democratic opposition. Former President Viktor Yushchenko, now seen as a traitor, was naturally absent.
Turchinov read out a draft “Resolution of the Popular Assembly for a European Ukraine” that was adopted unanimously by the crowd. It contains five demands:
- The ouster of the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov for betrayal of the national interest by adopting the decision to stop European integration;
- The calling of an extraordinary session of the parliament on November 27 to adopt all necessary Euro-integration laws, including a law to allow Tymoshenko to go abroad for medical treatment and a law on the prosecutor’s office. If these steps are not taken, the meeting at the demonstration called for dissolution of the parliament and new elections.
- A demand that President Yanukovych “annul the Azarov Government’s decision, stop political repression, liberate Yulia Tymoshenko,” and sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius. Otherwise, the opposition will call for his impeachment for treason.
- A demand for turning to the leadership of the European Union and asking for the facilitation of the signing of the European Association Agreement in Vilnius; and
- Coordination with the opposition.
The opposition leaders have called for continued protests at least until November 29. For the time being, the democratic opposition has taken over the squares in the center of Kiev, and they are televising their discussions on web TV. Among the demonstrations taking place throughout Ukraine, a substantial one was held in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home region. Riot police were out in large numbers defending key public buildings and the Lenin monument. There were minor skirmishes with the riot police outside the Cabinet of Ministers. Two policemen were announced as injured, and the police responded with tear gas, but the police seemed quite restrained. There were rumors of a couple of arrests of demonstrators, but they have not been confirmed.
Tonight, Yanukovych made his first public comment after the government announced that it suspended its preparation for signing the Association Agreement. It was strikingly empty. Its only content was the phrase: “I would like to underline that there is no alternative for Ukraine than to build a society on European standards.” Presumably, he is looking for some way out. Since all the power is his, he can always sack his government, but that will hardly be sufficient to calm the protests. Prime Minister Azarov has denied that Russia has promised any financial support, only the restoration of trade. Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara announced on Monday that Yanukovych will go to Vilnius on Thursday. All wait for Yanukovych’s next step.
With a miserable economic and financial situation, Yanukovych seems to have put himself into a corner. It is difficult to see how he can get out of it, given that the previously demoralized opposition suddenly seems to have returned to the spirit of December 2004. Ukraine is in a rampant political crisis.
Anders Åslund is a senior fellow and author of the book How Ukraine Became a Market Economy and Democracy.