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Euro’s Maidans: How Ukraine Got To This Point

By Etienne Davis

Guest Feature

Credit: Evgeny Feldman/Wikimedia Commons

In late 2013, Ukraine experienced a seismic shift as it became the epicentre of a remarkable wave of demonstrations and civil unrest that would be forever etched in history as Euromaidan. This unprecedented protest movement surged forth in response to the Ukrainian government's decision to forego an association agreement with the European Union in favour of forging closer ties with Russia. Stretching across several months, Euromaidan not only ignited the passion of millions of Ukrainians but also resonated profoundly on the international stage, reshaping Ukraine's political landscape and leaving an indelible mark on where it would end up. But this was not the first time Ukrainians rose in a furious anger, nor was it even the first time in a decade.

The Orange Revolution

When discussing Euromaidan, it is vital to cover its essential precursor, the Orange Revolution and the man behind why it occurred.

Leonid Kuchma, who served as Ukraine's president from 1994 to 2005, presided over a period marked by economic stagnation, rampant corruption, and increasing authoritarian tendencies. While his presidency brought stability to some extent, it also deepened the fault lines within Ukrainian society, paving the way for the subsequent waves of protests. 'Kuchmagate', named after President Kuchma, unfolded in 2000 when an opposition journalist, Georgiy Gongadze, was kidnapped and murdered. Tapes emerged in 2001, allegedly implicating high-ranking officials in Kuchma's administration in the crime. The recordings, known as the "Cassettes," further eroded public trust in the government, exacerbating the growing disillusionment with the political establishment. Therefore, in 2004, Kuchma decided on retirement instead of a third term, putting his support behind Viktor Yanukovych, his Prime Minister.

To the opposite of Yanukovych sat Viktor Yushchenko, a former central banker and pro-Western reformer. Yushchenko became a symbol of the Orange Revolution and embodied the hopes and aspirations of Ukrainians seeking closer integration with Europe and democratic reforms. While Yanukovych himself represented a pro-Russian orientation and appealed to a significant portion of the population that favoured closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych rose to prominence as a politician within the Party of Regions, which enjoyed strong support in the country's eastern and southern regions. His initial ascent to power, however, was fraught with controversy, including allegations of corruption and electoral fraud. And as a result, when it was announced that the election would be thrown into gridlock, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets, demanding a fair and transparent electoral process.

The campaign would be marred by allegations of vote-rigging, manipulation, and media bias. The highly contested election triggered widespread protests and raised concerns about the erosion of democracy in Ukraine. Especially from the Yanukovych camp. The Orange Revolution, marked by its sea of orange flags and banners, ultimately led to a revote that saw Viktor Yushchenko emerge as the new president via the supreme court of Ukraine. But not before a brush with death. In 2004, he fell seriously ill, reportedly due to dioxin poisoning. This incident further polarized the nation, with some viewing it as a sinister attempt to silence the opposition, while others questioned the circumstances surrounding the poisoning. Overall, however, the movement was hailed as a triumph for democracy and a sign of Ukraine's aspirations for closer ties with Europe. The initial euphoria soon faded though, as the promises of reform and progress gave way to political infighting and disillusionment. The legacy of the Orange Revolution would loom large over the subsequent political landscape and provide a backdrop against which Euromaidan would eventually emerge.

Yushchenko, Yanukovych and Tymoshenko

The divided political landscape and a lack of cohesive governance hampered Yushchenko's ability to enact his reform agenda. His presidency was marked by tensions within the pro-reform coalition, including disagreements with his former ally, Yulia Tymoshenko. The rift between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, who served as prime minister, led to a stalemate and policy gridlock, preventing meaningful progress on important issues such as anti-corruption measures and economic reforms.

In a surprising turn of events, Yushchenko appointed Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister in 2006, despite their previous political rivalry. The decision was met with controversy and widespread criticism from Yushchenko's supporters who viewed Yanukovych as a symbol of the corrupt establishment they had sought to overthrow during the Orange Revolution. The partnership between Yushchenko and Yanukovych proved to be short-lived, as political disagreements and power struggles between the president and prime minister further deepened the political crisis in Ukraine. The culmination of what occurred came in the 2010 election. Yanukovych, who had rebranded himself and sought to distance himself from his controversial past, successfully won the presidency, defeating Tymoshenko in a tightly contested race. Tymoshenko was Yushchenko’s right-hand woman, even going as far as to be the co-leader of the orange revolution.

Despite falling out with her boss, she represented a continuation of his legacy, with all of the issues it had and would potentially bring, contributing to her loss of 3.5 points to Yanukovych. Yanukovych's victory marked a significant shift in Ukrainian politics, as he assumed the presidency with a more pro-Russian stance and a desire to strengthen ties with Moscow. During Yanukovych's presidency, Ukraine witnessed a consolidation of power and an increasing centralization of authority. Critics argued that his administration prioritized the interests of a narrow elite, leading to a deterioration of democratic institutions and a clampdown on civil liberties. The arrest and imprisonment of Tymoshenko in 2011, on controversial charges further fueled concerns about political repression and selective justice. Tymoshenko would spend three years in prison, being detained until 2014. Her arrest would begin one of the catalysts for Euromaidan.

Once more, with feeling!

The announcement by the Ukrainian government, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, that it would suspend the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) became the spark that ignited the Euromaidan protests. The decision was met with widespread disappointment and anger among Ukrainians who saw it as a betrayal of their aspirations for closer European integration and a rejection of the potential benefits it could bring, including economic opportunities and enhanced political reforms. It ignited a torrent of outrage and triggered massive demonstrations, transforming the heart of Kyiv into a bustling epicentre of protesters, ad hoc encampments, and impassioned speech.

What started as a relatively small protest on Kyiv's Independence Square quickly grew into a mass mobilization of people from all walks of life. Euromaidan, which derived its name from the central rallying point of the protests, Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, began as a grassroots movement and rapidly gained momentum. The square became the symbolic epicentre of the movement. Thousands of Ukrainians poured into the streets, erecting tents and barricades, braving freezing temperatures, and expressing their desire for regime change. It attracted individuals from all walks of life, united in their shared yearning for democratic reforms, transparent governance, and stronger integration with the European Union. The protesters' aspirations reached beyond a mere realignment of foreign policy; they sought to confront the deep-seated corruption, economic stagnation, and authoritarian tendencies that had plagued Ukraine for years.

As the protests gained momentum, so did the response from the authorities. Riot police were deployed to disperse the crowds, leading to increasingly violent clashes. Riot police were deployed to disperse the crowds, leading to clashes and violent confrontations. Reports of excessive use of force, arbitrary detentions, and allegations of human rights abuses heightened public outrage and further fueled the determination of the demonstrators.

Euromaidan's impact extends far beyond the confines of Kyiv. Demonstrations spread across Ukraine, with various regions expressing solidarity and joining the cause. This widespread mobilization reflected a broader dissatisfaction with the prevailing political and economic conditions permeating the nation. Additionally, it laid bare the profound divisions between Ukraine's western regions, which were more inclined toward European integration, and the eastern and southern regions, which leaned towards closer ties with Russia. These existing fault lines were further exacerbated, providing the movement with a complex regional dimension. The climax of the Euromaidan protests came in February 2014 when the situation reached a boiling point. After months of demonstrations, clashes, and growing international pressure, President Viktor Yanukovych's grip on power began to crumble. As violence escalated and casualties mounted, a compromise agreement brokered by European mediators was signed between Yanukovych and the opposition, which included provisions for early elections, constitutional reforms, and the return to the 2004 constitution.

However, the agreement failed to quell the protests. The Ukrainian people were no longer willing to accept half-measures and demanded Yanukovych's immediate resignation. As tensions soared, Yanukovych fled Kyiv and went into hiding, eventually resurfacing in Russia. The sudden departure of the president marked a significant turning point and unleashed a wave of euphoria among the protesters, who saw it as a triumph for the people's will. But the celebrations could not last, as Pro-Russian militias began to move in the Donbas.

Donbas interludes

Supporters of closer ties with Russia in Donbas opposed the political changes taking place in Kyiv and rejected the legitimacy of the new government. Pro-Russian separatist movements emerged, demanding greater autonomy or outright independence from Ukraine. Amid these growing tensions, armed clashes erupted, leading to a full-scale conflict. The war in Donbass quickly became a complex international issue with Russia's involvement playing a significant role. Russia's annexation of Crimea in early 2014 heightened concerns about its intentions in Ukraine. The evidence of Russian military support for the separatists, including the provision of weapons, logistical assistance, and the presence of Russian soldiers, indicated direct involvement from across the border. The conflict took on a hybrid nature, with irregular militias and separatist forces fighting alongside Russian-backed units. The conflict zone witnessed intense battles, artillery shelling, and acts of violence, leading to a significant loss of life and widespread displacement of civilians. Access to essential services, such as healthcare, water, and electricity, became limited, further exacerbating the suffering of the affected population. The

conflict's impact on vulnerable groups, including children, the elderly, and those with disabilities, was particularly severe.

Numerous attempts were made to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Donbas. The Minsk Agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, aimed to establish a ceasefire, de-escalate the conflict, and facilitate a political settlement. The agreements involved the participation of Ukraine, Russia, and representatives of the separatist entities.

The cycle repeats

With Yanukovych gone, an interim government was established, composed of key opposition figures and representatives from civil society. Oleksandr Turchynov, a prominent opposition leader, assumed the role of acting president. One of the first acts of the interim government was the release of Tymoshenko, who was immediately politically rehabilitated as a sign of goodwill. Following the ouster of Yanukovych and the interim government's establishment, Ukraine faced the task of holding presidential elections to determine the country's new leader. In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko, a prominent businessman and politician, emerged as the frontrunner and was elected as Ukraine's fifth president.

Poroshenko, often referred to as the "Chocolate King" due to his confectionery empire, had coffers to spare when it came to running for President. He had previously served as a member of parliament, a foreign affairs minister, and an economic advisor to previous presidents. Poroshenko campaigned on a platform of national unity, anti-corruption measures, economic reforms, and a commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. Poroshenko faced significant challenges immediately upon assuming the presidency. The conflict in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist movements had taken hold, posed a grave threat to the country's territorial integrity and stability. Diplomatic relations with Russia collapsed almost entirely. Russia opted instead to support separatist movements in the Donbas, which would eventually result in the war in the Donbas between Ukraine and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Poroshenko's presidency was met with mixed reactions and criticism. While some praised his efforts to navigate a challenging geopolitical landscape and his commitment to democratic reforms, others accused him of not doing enough to tackle corruption and implement substantive changes. The slow pace of reforms and the persistence of systemic issues, coupled with public disillusionment, eroded Poroshenko's popularity and come 2019, it was time for another President.

You know him already, but back in 2019, he was just a comedian and television personality. But Volodymyr Zelensky would take Ukrainian politics by storm in 2019 after announcing his bid on New Years, ironically overtaking Poroshenko’s own address. Campaigning on an anti-establishment platform promising to tackle corruption and bring fresh perspectives to governance, he would sweep the electorate and become the Sixth President of Ukraine. This is not an article covering the current situation in Ukraine, but a chronicle of how it got to this point. So to write any more would be discrediting. Overall, however, Euromaidan, the Orange Revolution, and the rest of Ukraine's recent troubled history has had an obvious effect on the situation now unfolding in the region.

Originally published in Diplomatics:


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