The following article is a contribution by guest writer, Yulia Bodnar. A freelance journalist and blogger from Ukraine, she currently lives in Amsterdam, where she is completing an MA in Journalism, Media and Globalization.
If you were wondering why mass demonstrations in Ukraine continue even after the government ditched the Association Agreement with Europe, here is the simple answer: it is not only about the European Union anymore. Now the protest is about human rights, democracy and a civilization-defining choice.
How it all started
Over the last two weeks, my Facebook news-feed has exploded with pictures and videos from Kiev, which has quickly become the current biggest capital of peaceful revolution. The nationwide protests began with a demand to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius. The agreement was believed to be the very first step towards European integration for the country, where 60 percent of the population want to join EU.
No wonder then, that the day after the Ukrainian government froze negotiations with Brussels, almost 200,000 people walked on the streets of Kiev to start the biggest demonstration since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Unlike nine years previous, however, Ukrainians were mobilized not by a political leader or party, but by the desire to replace post-Soviet lifestyle with European standards. As euro-skeptic experts predicted the same destiny for Ukraine as that of Greece and Cyprus, ordinary people were rejecting their criticism with a simple argument: Ukraine is facing an in/out option, and it simply has to choose for the lesser of two evils.
Facebook and Twitter became the main communication base for the demonstrators. They asked the opposition leaders not to use political parties’ flags and banners to make this a nonpolitical and nonviolent protest. The whole demonstration reminded me very much of a weeklong day and night football fan celebration (in its best-case scenario): The same raising spirit of national pride, the same passion and the same hope.
Government beats up students and journalists
Then came the government’s turn to act. After the utter diplomatic failure at the Vilnius summit, the demands of the protesters started to sound annoying. President Victor Yanukovych subsequently decided to end the jubilation of Maidan with violence and abuse. On November 30th at 4 a.m. he sent in special troops to beat up the few hundred students which were staying at Maidan overnight.
Without exaggeration, it was the most violent and outrageous reaction of the government in the history of independent Ukraine. The police smashed heads and beat people to the ground, hitting even the female protesters and reporters.
That was the turning point for the whole protest movement. The very next day people returned on the streets and their number at least doubled, with news agencies reporting the total number of demonstrators to be between 400,000 to 800,000.
This time the mood in the crowd was filled with shock and anger. Yanukovych not only betrayed the national interests by consciously ignoring a chance for Ukraine to get closer to Europe, but he also acted like a cruel tyrant by openly disrespecting and violating the people’s constitutional right to assemble.
Choice of civilization
The protesters started to demand the resignation of the president, the government, as well as demanding punishment of policemen who were beating up protester and reporters.
But the most crucial element of this story is not that of violence but that, for the first time in so many years, Ukraine is witnessing a rising up of civil society. People are fighting not for political parties and leaders, and not even for the visa-free regime with EU, but for democratic values, accountable government and the rights of Ukrainian citizens.
The choice of post-Soviet civilization means an endless Russian political, economic and cultural domination and adoption of its rules of the game: no real freedom of speech, no political pluralism and no rights for the citizens to protest against omnipotent state. The choice of the EU vector means a choice of completely opposite set of values and standards.
As Timothy Snyder put it:
“If this is a revolution, it must be one of the most common-sense revolutions in history”.
What is next
Having briefly told you the beginning of this story, I cannot yet tell you how it will end. The Euromaidan camp is still there and it keeps growing. While I am writing this post, thousands of people are gathering again in Kiev. A call to organize another mass demonstration was spread on web after the media reported some protesters are still kept in jail against obvious lack of evidence.
Despite the attempts to provoke violence and clashes with the police, the demonstration remains peaceful. The protesters occupied a couple of governmental buildings and transformed them into a base where people can have a rest, warm up, get free food and even winter clothes.
Today, a possible way-out for Ukraine would be to come back to the parliamentary democracy, and abolish the strong presidency which is presently in place. Nevertheless, this would be quite hard to do without unanimity in the current parliament. Indeed, this week opposition leaders couldn’t collect enough votes for the resignation of the president and the government.
Being ignored by the state and having no effective support of the opposition, Ukrainians seem to be left alone with police and winter. The real help could come from United States, European countries and officials in Brussels particularly. American and EU leaders have already condemned the violence but the protesters are calling the international community for more radical action, for example, to impose personal sanctions on president Yanukovych (e.g. to freeze his accounts and accounts that belong to his family members – one of the richest people in Ukraine).
In 2004, I was standing at Maidan side by side with my parents and thousands of Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution. Being a teenager, I couldn’t fully comprehend what was happing there, but I clearly remember that spirit of unity and a hope for better life. In a couple of days I will fly to Kiev and join my friends at Euromaidan which, hopefully, will be still full of protesters.
I believe Ukrainian people have already delivered a decisive message to Europe, and to the whole world. Even without an official proof and signed agreements, Ukraine has already shown where it belongs geopolitically and, most importantly, which values, rights and life standards its citizens choose.
I do hope that this choice will be finally heard and supported by the world.