Ukraine: why did Kiev protests become so violent?

Feb 21, 2014

Some analysts say violence is the direct result of Russian intervention in Ukraine

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THE scale of yesterday's violence in Ukraine, which left scores of people dead, many at the hands of police snipers, took many by surprise.

But analysts say that the conflict has been brewing for some time, and that it has now progressed far beyond a dispute about membership of the EU.

What is behind the violence?

The discord began last autumn when demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the government's last-minute rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union. Many years of work had been put into the deal and President Yanukovych's /volte-face/ was seen within the country as yet another capitulation to the ruling regime's Russian paymasters.

The protests began with students, writes Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, in the New York Review of Books, but swiftly they were joined by middle-aged veterans of the USSR's Afghan war. "Former soldiers and officers of the Red Army, many of them bearing the scars of battlefield wounds, came to protect 'their children'," he says. When riot police came to beat the protesters, a popular movement coalesced, and the issue shifted from the collapse of the European deal, to a much broader and more vital "defence of decency".

Then there is the role of the president, who was a divisive figure long before the demonstrations began. "Mr Yanukovych's mandate was always threadbare, based on an election widely seen as rigged," The Times reports.

When the president enacted wide-ranging new laws on 16 January that put an end to public freedoms of speech and assembly, and simultaneously removed the few remaining checks on his own executive authority, the protests swelled. "People from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews [joined in]," says Snyder.

In the wake of the new legislation, the previously peaceful protests took a violent turn, with dozens killed. Snyder argues that the government's measures bore the signs of Russian intervention: "The dictatorship laws of 16 January were obviously based on Russian models, and were proposed by Ukrainian legislators with close ties to Moscow. They seem to have been Russia's condition for financial support of the Yanukovych regime. Before they were announced, Putin offered Ukraine a large loan and promised reductions in the price of Russian natural gas."

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev maintained the Kremlin's hard line this week, insisting that Yanukovych must maintain his present course: "Of course we will continue the cooperation with our Ukrainian partners on all previously agreed directions... It is necessary for the partners themselves to maintain their tone and for the active authorities in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective, not a doormat for everyone to clean their feet," Medvedev said.

Where next?

Some analysts believe that the violence could lead to civil war. But is this likely? Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, told USA Today that in her view the protests do not signal the start of a long-term conflict.

"It will not turn into a civil war because those who are supporting the government are not prepared to risk their lives," she said. "Ukraine will not split because there are not significant numbers of Ukrainians who are supporting the use of violence against civilians. It will not turn into people fighting with people. It is basically just civilians fighting with the riot police."

Joerg Forbrig, of the German Marshall Fund of the US, disagrees. "There is the possibility this could spin out of control into a confrontation amongst Ukrainians," he told Bloomberg.

Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Ukrainian affairs, told The Atlantic[5] that a split might in fact be the best possible result. If the eastern provinces were to go their own way, he said, "the economy [of the remaining Ukraine] would automatically improve, the politics would automatically improve, Ukraine would automatically become more democratic, richer, more prosperous, and stable".

Can the international community do anything?

The EU has agreed to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian officials "responsible for violence and excessive force" in the capital. EU foreign ministers have proposed an assets freeze and visa bans. The US announced it would undertake similar measures.

The Times argues that "Europe's sanctions plan is welcome but insufficient". The only solution is for Yanukovych to go. "The sooner its leaders accept that their time is up, the better. Europe can hasten that day and shorten the blood-letting by standing firm against a government that has lost the right to govern," The Times says.

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