Protests began in Ukraine in November following the country’s failure to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. In an interview with EUROPP’s Managing Editor Stuart Brown, Andreas Umland, Associate Professor at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, discusses the development of the protests, the role the EU should play in the crisis, and the very real threat that the situation could develop into a civil war.
The protests began after the failure to sign an EU Association Agreement in November. Is Ukraine’s relationship with the EU still a primary focus of the movement, or has it since developed to incorporate much wider aims?
Only during the first days of the EuroMaidan, in late November 2013, was the issue of the Association Agreement with the EU the primary topic of concern for the protesters. After the violent police crackdown on young pro-European students on 30 November 2013, the focus changed to more domestic political issues and the protests turned into a broader social movement. The primary demands of the protests became the punishment of those responsible for the crackdown, especially the dismissal of the Minister of Interior Zakharchenko and other officials responsible for violent police actions.
This did not happen, however. Instead more police brutality against protesters, bystanders and journalists occurred during the following weeks. Simultaneously, President Yanukovych started a rapprochement with Russia during December 2013. In light of these developments, the movement’s core demands turned towards elections of both the President and Parliament. Snap elections had been earlier suggested, but did not have as principal an importance as later on.
Has the response from the Ukrainian government, including the recent introduction of anti-protest laws, simply inflamed the situation further?
The procedurally and democratically flawed adoption of the so-called “dictatorship laws” of 16 January 2014 gave the protests a new quality in terms of their aims and character. Whereas before, the protesters had demanded a change of policy and government, today the demand has changed to a transformation of the entire, now officially semi-authoritarian regime.
The second recent novelty was a split within the movement into, on the one side, moderate protesters led by the opposition parties who are remaining peaceful and continue not using force, and, on the other side, a growing radical part ready to use violence and primitive weapons like stones and sticks. Whereas the moderates demand political change and may be ready to accept an amnesty for all perpetrators, the radicals want a full-scale revolution and those responsible for violence, including the President, brought to justice. Some even want revenge for the various missteps of Yanukovych.
Should the EU be doing more to intervene in the crisis, particularly with regard to its relations with Russia?
Yes – because the EU is a part of this conflict already. The pretext of the protests was the upcoming signing of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit at Vilnius, in November 2013. This Agreement was an idea of the EU, and its negotiation directed by the Commission.
The main, although not only reason for the Ukrainian leadership’s last-minute cancellation of the treaty’s conclusion was an intervention of Russia that included both economic pressure and financial offers. On the one side, for instance, during a five-day trade boycott in August 2013, Russia demonstrated to Ukraine what the counter or “protective” measures would look like in the case that Ukraine signs the Association Agreement. On the other side, Russia is now supporting Ukraine through a $15 billion credit line, and significant lowering of gas prices. Putin may have brought forward other threats or benefits that we do not know of, but that may have been voiced during the semi-secret Russian-Ukrainian negotiations of autumn 2013.
In view of Russia’s obvious co-responsibility for the failure of the EU’s partnership policies in Ukraine, the EU should have used – or should, at least, in the future use – its considerable economic pressure potential here, as well as regarding the Association Agreements with Georgia, Moldova and, perhaps, also Armenia. Russia needs European customers and investments more than the EU needs Russian deliveries and markets. The Union could and should have used its leverage, yet it did not.
In addition, many political representatives, supportive state officials, and financial backers of the growingly authoritarian Ukrainian regime have assets, bank accounts, businesses, real estate, family (and so on) in the EU. The member states of the EU could impose painful sanctions on particularly unapologetic Ukrainian violators of human rights. There also seem to be certain Ukrainian criminal activities, like money laundering, happening on EU territory which have been ignored so far by the European law protection agencies. The more repressive Yanukovych’s rule becomes, the more scandalous will the EU’s inaction regarding these issues look.
Former President Viktor Yushchenko has warned that the crisis could create a civil war within the country. Do the protests have real potential to spill over into armed conflict?
Yes, if people die and martyrs appear, an escalation could easily turn into an armed conflict. The protests are, perhaps, not even the only and most dangerous issue. A civil war could also occur as a result of separatist tendencies. In the case of an accumulation of various crises in Ukraine – political, social, economic, financial, international etc. – some regions in the East and South of Ukraine could appeal to Moscow asking to become Russian protectorates. Both official Kyiv and Ukrainian nationalists would hardly accept this, and may try to prevent a separation by force. This, in turn, could trigger a Russian military involvement following the scheme of Moscow’s intervention in Georgia in August 2008.
The coming months will be tense. One hopes that the relevant decision-makers in the West understand how high the stakes in the current confrontation in Kyiv are.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Andreas Umland – National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Andreas Umland is DAAD Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is one of the leading German specialists in the history and politics of Ukraine. He is also the editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.
I disagree with professor Umland’s warning about potential armed conflict in Ukraine. So far, the demonstrators in Maidan Square behaved like the opposition in Thailand, meaning that they did not play by the normal democratic rules. A democratically -elected president refused to sign an agreement with the EU : is this reason enough to escalate protests to this level of violence and civil disobedience ? I think not, and I believe that Ukraine is again the victim of an ongoing geopolitical confrontation in the area between the West and Russia that is really foreign to this country’s best interests
Ok protesters do not play by the rules all of the time, but this has also been escalated by the government. It doesn’t have to be an armed conflict, but if it keeps escalating then that’s where it is going…
It is rather simple : protesters in the streets should now go home and mobilize their supporters for bringing down the government with the help of the ballot box, at tyhe next elections ! We do live in Europe, not in Egypt or Thailand, wouldn’t you agree ?
There are people dying now so of course I agree that it would be best if we had a solution and the violence stopped. I’m just saying that it is worrying where it could go and both sides are not blameless (as with any protest).
This is most unfortunate, to be sure. People died in Tahrir Square, and yesterday in Thailand , too . This type of protests do lead to such tragedies. According to Max Weber, however, only the state has a legal monopoly on violence, not the protesters. In other words, all successful protests have usually been peaceful …
Well, usually I do not leave comments, but as I was born in Ukraine, and then at 17 moved to Israel, and still visiting my family in Ukraine twice a year, I may wholeheartedly tell you regarding situation in Ukraine and Egypt that peaceful protest against swinish corruption and outrageous terrorism is like treating cancer with aspirin.
As for Ukraine, you probably have never been there and can not imagine the levels of corruption that goes up to the highest positions in the state. In Ukraine if you want to start a business first you have to pay both legally and illegally to various administrations, then if you are lucky enough to make profits, it goes without saying that if you want to stay alive and your family be safe you must share the profits. Too bad if you do not make profits, because you have to share anyway. In other words 80% of population is continually robbed by the regime. Once flowering industry and agriculture are almost completely ruined. Moreover money can settle any criminal issue. The present Ukrainian government is a monster, and the only hope, however ephemeral, to deal with it in a peaceful and legal way was to sign an agreement with EU, that would oblige to comply with democratic principles to eventually eliminate corruption. No wonder that failure to sign ended in an uprising.
As for Egypt, boy, they got balls!
As a Romanian national, I do not have to visit Ukraine to understand its problems . Corruption and poverty in the wake of the collapse of communism are equally affecting Romania, even after the country has been accepted as an European Union member in 2007. Both Bulgaria and Romania are still being monitored by Brussels, but to no avail : crime and official corruption still go on largely unchecked. In Romania, 90 % of Romanians are being robbed by the various governments that have come to power since 1989. I think that the government in Ukraine has shown restraint for two months, which was ample time for the opposition to change strategy. No state, corrupt or otherwise, can tolerate for long this type of protests. EU is preaching democracy and the rule of law in the region and around the world, but by supporting violent protesters against an elected government it is making a huge mistake.The issue here is therefore geopolitical in nature, as the west is in fact fighting to increase its influence in Ukraine – the most important, strategically and economically,former Soviet republic. Unfortunately, this confrontation with Russia comes after the 2007 financial crisis, austerity in Europe, high unemployment within the EU itself . In short, the EU has nothing to offer Ukraine anymore, and this is a fact that should be kept in mind.
I live in Donetsk (Eastern Ukraine). Anna Kamanba, If it was a corruption problem I would join the protestants! But they hate all Russian and Juwsh, numbers of them are nazi (Right Sector, White Hammer). Anna, as a juwsh you would suffer first if they won!
30 June 2014 : My January assessment was correct, after all: The Maidan protests did not lead to civil war, because Yanukovych preferred to flee instead of using the army against the protesters. The civil war erupted nevertheless, as the nationalists who took power in Kiev revoked on the 23rd of February the language autonomy legislation adopted earlier by the more ethnically-tolerant Party of Regions, thus alienating Russian-speakers, Romanians and Hungarians alike.
Ukraine is now experiencing civil warfare in the east, political chaos and economic destitution : was it worth it ? Through the economic sanctions imposed on Russia, the west has also made sure globalization and economic interdependence is stalling, probably for good.