This post was originally published on the Daily Illini on February 17, 2014.
The events of the Euromaidan, the wave of protests that have erupted in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, have developed unexpectedly for Ukranians. Protestors took to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the city’s main square, to rally against the president’s sudden decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, and Ukraine’s government responded unexpectedly with violence, cracking down on those who gathered in the square by firing rubber bullets.
|Carol Leff, associate professor of political science|
at the University addressees the audience at a roundtable
discussion focused around the events in Ukraine.
Photo Credit: Brenton Tse, Daily Illini
“This new kind of radical eruption was a surprise for a lot of people,” said Ukraine-native Oleksandra Wallo, a visiting lecturer in the Slavic languages and literature department. “No one really expected to see it happening to Kiev when it did.”
Wallo said this violence stands in contrast to the scenes of the Orange Revolution — a large, non-violent protest that took place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti nine years ago — in which she participated. In November 2004, Ukrainians descended on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in response to the results of the country’s presidential elections, which was allegedly corrupted by voter intimidation and direct election fraud. Ukraine’s Supreme Court nullified the results of the first run-off in December 2004, and a second, fair election was held.
“The revolution was uniting the nation, but the events following didn’t do much for the people,” said Samiylo Habrel, freshman in the Engineering and another Ukrainian who experienced the Orange Revolution.
Protestors settled on Maidan Nezalezhnosti again last fall, almost exactly nine years after the start of the Orange Revolution.
The president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, had been working for several years on an association agreement with the European Union. This agreement is a political and free trade agreement that could ultimately lead to Ukraine becoming a member of the EU.
However, Yanukovych suddenly decided not to sign it in November 2013, causing protestors to take to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Carol Leff, an associate professor of political science at the University, explained that the president claims that he didn’t sign the deal “to ensure the national security of Ukraine ... and its trade relations with Russia,” as Russia is an important energy resource and partner for Ukraine.
Leff was one of the three panelists in a roundtable discussion of Ukraine’s current events and political protests Friday at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
Wallo, another panelist on the roundtable, also commented on Yanukovych’s sudden change of course.
“Since he was preparing for the association for such a long time, the suddenness of this was what really angered people,” Wallo said. “They felt like they were manipulated.”
The bad blood between the president and his people became even more volatile when he attempted to disperse protestors on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti using violence.
“The most appropriate action would be replacement of most of the government and maybe new elections,” Habrel said. “The current president does not look out for the people, and he has his own beliefs. The current president is trying to oppress the people.”
Use of force is one of the main differences between the Euromaidan and the Orange Revolution, which remained completely nonviolent during its duration. It has been a mobilizer for many to flock to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti and for other world leaders to stand with the protestors.
According to a December study done by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 70 percent of people surveyed on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti said they weren’t there because of the EU deal, but because the government chose to engage in violent crackdowns.
“The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement in early December. “This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”
Wallo described the difficulty of watching the protests unfold from
“Watching how the riot police were trying to storm the Maidan one night, I knew I was afraid for who was there and sort of felt helpless since I couldn’t help them in any way from here,” Wallo said.
In contrast, she said her father and brother, who experienced some of the violence, said they felt tense when violence would erupt but supported by those around them and strengthened by the importance of their mission.
“Even though physically it’s difficult, emotionally it’s inspiring because you see so many people fighting together for a common goal,” she said, adding that the feeling was similar to that which she felt during the Orange Revolution.
Wallo also said her friends and family live in a strange mode now where they work during the day but spend much of their time following what’s happening on Maidan Nezalezhnosti by watching the news and following the Euromaidan’s Twitter account.
“It’s almost this surreal space — no one knows what’s going to happen,” she said.
Steffie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.