Mass protests continued on the streets of Ukraine on Thursday, with an estimated 10,000 people gathered in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). The protests began on November 22, after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed course and refused to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union that had been in the works for years after heavy pressure from Moscow to abandon the agreements. Despite a violent police crackdown, protesters have vowed to continue blockading streets and occupying public buildings until their central demand is met: the current government, including Yanukovych, must go. Here’s what you need to know about the current situation and its implications:
Why they’re protesting. The treaties would have opened the European Union market to Ukrainian companies and could have boosted the Ukrainian GDP by more than six percent over ten years. The country is suffering through an economic depression and lower tariffs and expanded competition could have also lowered prices, “fueling an increase of household consumption of some 12 percent.” Ukraine would have also adopted 350 EU laws, codifying what many Ukrainians saw as a “commitment to European standards of governance and social justice.” To them, the treaty was a way of diminishing Russia’s long-time influence and reversing the trend of persistent economic corruption and sluggishness.
“We don’t need the EU’s money. We need the EU’s values,” one protester told TIME. Ukrainians have long viewed the West through rose-colored glasses and now see Russia as a “corrupt, inefficient, oligarch-driven regime” that can garner influence by flouting its “oil, gas and natural resources,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs said.
Yanukovych explained his last-minute change of heart by claiming that “EU’s aid offers were insufficient and that Ukraine cannot afford to lose close trade ties with Russia.” Russia — which is trying to construct a Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics — began derailing the deal in August, when it imposed painful trade sanctions against Ukraine and threatened the country with “gas bills.” “I have been one-on-one with Russia for three and a half years under very unequal conditions,” Yanukovych complained to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The crackdown. On Friday, Ukrainian police brutally cleared Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where protesters had been peacefully assembled. Videos of police beating protesters went viral and heightened the outrage. The next day, protesters defied a court order and returned in even greater numbers — with an estimated 350,000 people taking to the streets of Kyiv and more assembling in cities across the country, even in the historically pro-Russian east.
Hundreds of people were injured in the violent clashes, including dozens of journalists.
Several Ukrainian doctors penned an open letter to the Interior Ministry’s Security Service, asking them not to attack women or the elderly. “We asked the riot police not to beat activists on the head or stomach. We also asked not to use force against medicians who helped injured protesters,” according to the Kyiv Post’s translation of the letter.
The government’s response. On Tuesday, a vote to declare no confidence in the government failed in parliament, and President Yanukovych departed for his previously-scheduled trip to China. Yanukovych expressed a willingness to restart talks with Brussels, but as the New York Times points out, “while European leaders say they remain open to signing the accords if Ukraine meets previously agreed-upon conditions, like an overhaul of its justice system, they are not willing to renegotiate.”
Protesters vowed to step up their efforts after Tuesday’s failed vote and on Wednesday, they continued to take over public buildings in the nation’s capital, blockading the central bank. The demonstrators have already blockaded the Cabinet Ministry and seized City Hall.
On Wednesday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov warned the opposition to stop escalating its protests, claiming “the reasons for street protests have been exhausted,” according to Radio Free Europe.
While Azarov apologized for the police role in the violent clashes over the weekend and said an investigation was underway, the New York Times reported that prosecutors in Kyiv had thus far punished only one side, charging “nine demonstrators with organizing mass unrest related to a violent confrontation between police and activists over the weekend.”
Protesters have vowed to occupy Kyiv’s streets and public buildings until their demands are met, despite the onset of deep winter. In a joint statement, three former Ukrainian presidents — Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko — expressed “solidarity” with the protesters. “We express solidarity with the peaceful civic actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians,” the said, while condemning “the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators.” The presidents also urged an “open dialogue” that takes into account “the European aspirations of the Ukrainian people”.
Why it matters. Analysts contend that the protests represent the continued break from the old Soviet system and signal the countries lurch towards greater democracy and openness. The demonstrations have also “brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have faint — if any — memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics as usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.”
“Ukraine is [the] most corrupt country in Europe,” opposition leader and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko told CNN. “Ukrainians don’t want to live in [a] police country.”
They’re also deeply frustrated by the state of the economy. The 2008 financial crisis took a particularly heavy toll on Ukraine, which saw its economy shrink by almost 15 percent in 2009. The declining economy is compounded by the country’s shrinking reserves of foreign currency and a population in freefall.
In the wake of so much suffering, Ukraine’s citizens are hungry for solutions. As Oleh Kostyuba points out in a New York Times op-ed, “polls showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians supported integration with Europe, even in the East, the region most oriented toward Russia.” Yanukovych’s sudden reversal added insult to injury for many Ukrainians. And even though it’s only been a week since the EU agreements were scrapped, “Western financial markets are already showing visible nervousness about Ukraine’s future stability,” Radio Free Europe reported.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the demonstrations across Ukraine “quite extraordinary” and urged the country’s leaders to pay attention. “People of all different backgrounds are giving voice to their very real and very deep aspirations, and we urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom and in opportunity and prosperity,” he said.
As Greg Satell writes in Forbes, while the Orange Revolution sent a clear message that elections could not be stolen, “this time people are taking to the streets to build a bridge to the future, for the country to adopt international standards and become, in the words of protesters, ‘a normal country.’”