Kiev is burning, as protests that started Tuesday almost immediately descended into violence. And if you’re not following the political situation closely, this seems to have come out of nowhere. In truth, though, it’s a conflict that’s been simmering for months, arguably years. Here’s what you need to know about the violence in Kiev.
So these started as protests? Over what?
Essentially, it started over a geopolitical power struggle. On the one side, you have the current government of the Ukraine, led by Viktor Yanukovych, who wants to align more closely with Russia. And on the other, you have the Euromaidan movement, which feels the Ukraine is better served by taking steps to join the European Union. In fact, the Ukraine was, last year, almost ready to take a major step towards joining the EU… but then abruptly, negotiations ended.
That can’t be the only reason.
Part of the reason negotiations broke down is that, essentially, more and more abuses by Yanukovych’s government have come to light. The EU didn’t like the fact that Yanukovych basically threw Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Prime Minister of the Ukraine and the woman who very nearly beat Yanukovych for the presidency, in prison in what many observers believe are trumped-up charges. The fact that Tymoshenko has serious health issues and may be effectively denied medical treatment also doesn’t help matters.
This is just the tip of the iceberg: The Ukrainian government has a terrible human rights record, something that has fueled protests in the past. Corruption is widespread, and many believe Russia is directly behind these problems.
This sounds like it’s been simmering for a while.
You could argue this goes back to 2005 and the Orange Revolution, where, you guessed it, pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych “won” an election that was heavily believed to be rigged against opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was poisoned in what’s alleged to be an assassination attempt.
How the hell is this Yanukovych guy not in jail and running the Ukraine?
You pretty much summed up how the protesters feel. Yanukovych seemingly rolling over for Russia, right up to what looks suspiciously like a straight-up $2 billion bribe in the form of foreign aid, was the last straw and on Tuesday, protestors began marching.
Keep in mind that it’s not just police violence they have to deal with. The temperatures are sub-zero and the weather has been terrible, but it’s estimated 80,000 Ukrainians are protesting in the streets of Kiev. The country is in a de-facto state of emergency.
Why the violence?
It’s widely believed Russia wanted the Ukraine to show that it had the populace in line by cracking down on protesters. On February 18th, as 20,000 protestors began marching, they pushed aside a police barricade. The police replied with stun grenades and shotguns, the protesters began building fiery barracades to keep the police from taking the square, and the situation has gone downhill from there.
How will this shake out?
Either Yanukovych gives up, gives the protesters what they want, and likely resigns from his post…or he intensifies the crackdown. The former is obviously the one everybody except Russia’s government and Yanukovych would prefer. It’s also the one that’s more likely to end peacefully.
Option two would likely trigger a civil war, with the potential to turn into a straight-up war. The Ukraine borders Romania and Poland, members of the European Union, and it’s unlikely any conflict in the country wouldn’t have some fallout for them… which in turn means the EU would have to send troops. Similarly, considering that Vladimir Putin essentially views himself as the strong man of Eurasia, it’s well within the realm of possibility that he will send Russian troops, which would be more of less construed as an invasion of a sovereign country.
Which will it be?
Fortunately, option one seems the more likely. Part of Yanukovynch’s problem is that the protesters have been livestreaming, tweeting, sharing photos, and generally ensuring that he can’t pretend this is a couple of rabble-rousers lighting a few fires, but a huge number of his citizens telling him to get out of office and stay out. He’s under a microscope, and if he decides to start killing his own civilians, the entire world will drop on him.
That said, Putin and Russia want more influence, and to bring their former states back into the fold. And if Kiev, in fact, shakes out in favor of the people who want a more open and less corrupt government, it’s going to start reminding Russian citizens that they don’t have to put up with tyrants. So unfortunately, this might just be the middle of a longer and sadder story.