Effects of violence in Kiev, Ukraine, recognized in C-U

This is a re-posting of an article in the February 17, 2014, issue of The Daily Illini. To view the original article, please click here: http://www.dailyillini.com/news/article_1a013caa-976d-11e3-8813-0017a43b2370.html

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Carol Leff, associate professor of political science at the University addressees the audience at a roundtable discussion focused around the events in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Brenton Tse)

Carol Leff, associate professor of political science at the University addressees the audience at a roundtable discussion focused around the events in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of Brenton Tse)

The events of the Euromaidan, the wave of protests that have erupted in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev, have developed unexpectedly for Ukranians. Protestors took to Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the city’s main square, to rally against the president’s sudden decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, and Ukraine’s government responded unexpectedly with violence, cracking down on those who gathered in the square by firing rubber bullets.

“This new kind of radical eruption was a surprise for a lot of people,” said Ukraine-native Oleksandra Wallo, a visiting lecturer in the Slavic languages and literature department. “No one really expected to see it happening to Kiev when it did.”

Wallo said this violence stands in contrast to the scenes of the Orange Revolution — a large, non-violent protest that took place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti nine years ago — in which she participated. In November 2004, Ukrainians descended on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in response to the results of the country’s presidential elections, which was allegedly corrupted by voter intimidation and direct election fraud. Ukraine’s Supreme Court nullified the results of the first run-off in December 2004, and a second, fair election was held.

“The revolution was uniting the nation, but the events following didn’t do much for the people,” said Samiylo Habrel, freshman in the Engineering and another Ukrainian who experienced the Orange Revolution.

Protestors settled on Maidan Nezalezhnosti again last fall, almost exactly nine years after the start of the Orange Revolution.

The president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, had been working for several years on an association agreement with the European Union. This agreement is a political and free trade agreement that could ultimately lead to Ukraine becoming a member of the EU.

However, Yanukovych suddenly decided not to sign it in November 2013, causing protestors to take to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Carol Leff, an associate professor of political science at the University, explained that the president claims that he didn’t sign the deal “to ensure the national security of Ukraine … and its trade relations with Russia,” as Russia is an important energy resource and partner for Ukraine.

Leff was one of the three panelists in a roundtable discussion of Ukraine’s current events and political protests Friday at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Wallo, another panelist on the roundtable, also commented on Yanukovych’s sudden change of course.

“Since he was preparing for the association for such a long time, the suddenness of this was what really angered people,” Wallo said. “They felt like they were manipulated.”

The bad blood between the president and his people became even more volatile when he attempted to disperse protestors on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti using violence.

“The most appropriate action would be replacement of most of the government and maybe new elections,” Habrel said. “The current president does not look out for the people, and he has his own beliefs. The current president is trying to oppress the people.”

Use of force is one of the main differences between the Euromaidan and the Orange Revolution, which remained completely nonviolent during its duration. It has been a mobilizer for many to flock to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti and for other world leaders to stand with the protestors.

According to a December study done by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, 70 percent of people surveyed on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti said they weren’t there because of the EU deal, but because the government chose to engage in violent crackdowns.

“The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement in early December. “This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.”

Wallo described the difficulty of watching the protests unfold from afar.

“Watching how the riot police were trying to storm the Maidan one night, I knew I was afraid for who was there and sort of felt helpless since I couldn’t help them in any way from here,” Wallo said.

In contrast, she said her father and brother, who experienced some of the violence, said they felt tense when violence would erupt but supported by those around them and strengthened by the importance of their mission.

“Even though physically it’s difficult, emotionally it’s inspiring because you see so many people fighting together for a common goal,” she said, adding that the feeling was similar to that which she felt during the Orange Revolution.

Wallo also said her friends and family live in a strange mode now where they work during the day but spend much of their time following what’s happening on Maidan Nezalezhnosti by watching the news and following the Euromaidan’s Twitter account.

“It’s almost this surreal space — no one knows what’s going to happen,” she said.

Ukrainian Protests, Another Round of Battle Coming Soon?

After a long cold winter, the protesters at Kiev’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, have not only renamed the iconic location to Euromaidan, but have also continued to occupy the main square since the end of November 2013. With makeshift tents complete with heating and food, only one thing is certain: it will take an incredible show of force to make the protesters give way.

After the two-month mark of the protests, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych signed into law some very disconcerting legislation that restricted the Ukrainian citizens’ freedom of speech. These laws against protesting and the media also added harsh penalties that turned many people into criminals in seconds, giving Yanukovych the opportunity to lock up members of the opposition for up to 15 years. As one can imagine, the legislation did not sit well with the Ukrainian citizens. After a brief pause in the protests, in late January 2014, the protesting intensified and became violent.

In the swirling clouds of black smoke from thousands of burning tires and the charred lines between the riot police and protesters, made even more dramatic by stun grenades, Molotov cocktails, and various rocks and baseball bats among other things, this was no place to be for anyone looking for a peaceful Sunday walk through the park. The violence led to multiples deaths, with the counts ranging from three to five, two of which allegedly on account of government snipers with live ammunition. Although the protests have died down again since then, they can gain momentum again at any moment.

Now, what next? After this bout of violence, Yanukovych offered to give opposition leaders spots in parliament, which they declined saying that they will not settle for anything less than Yanukovych’s step down from the presidency. Shortly after revoking the restrictive laws, Yanukovych took sick leave and failed to sign the new bills into power. One of the conditions was that the protesters had 15 days to leave the buildings that they were occupying, with the threat of police intervention if not evacuated within those 15 days. Now those 15 days are coming to an end. With that in mind, it is highly unlikely that the protesters will willingly give up the buildings they seized so get ready for some more action at any time.

Protesters occupying the City Council building (photo courtesy of Areta Kovalsky)

Protesters occupying the City Council building (photo courtesy of Areta Kovalsky)

What are the effects? Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union and instead take on $15 billion in Russian bailout loans  in late November 2013 spurred the whole situation. However, there is currently more than ever at stake because Russia refuses to deliver the loan payouts until Yanukovych can prove that he has control of his people again. Seemingly, Yanukovych is stuck; no matter what he decides, the decision will give him some element of defeat. If he steps down, he loses his position as president and all the perks of being in power. On the other hand, if he uses force again to evacuate the protesters, he risks setting off another round of urban warfare, and faces both much international criticism and much more violence.

After having traveled to Kiev eight times, the city has become a favorite travel destination of mine. Although these protests will not stop me from going again, it is very sad to see one of the places I love most having such troubles. As far as the future of the current protests goes, I do not see any progress happening anytime soon. Both Yanukovych and the protesters are stuck fighting against each other, and neither party wants to give up. There have been talks of the EU and the US intervening to help find a solution, which seems possible. However, a recently leaked conversation of US government officials bashing the EU might throw their work off balance. That being said, the only option for now is to wait it out and see what happens. With the 15 days that Yanukovych gave the protesters to evacuate the occupied buildings coming to an end, there might be some interesting news in the coming days.

Zachary Grotovsky is an MA candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Upon graduating in May 2014, he hopes to find a position where he can take advantage of his knowledge of German studies, and experiences in Ukraine and Poland to help people realize how much knowledge of other cultures puts them ahead. He became interested in Poland and Ukraine through contact with the people while traveling, and now frequents Ukraine as a favorite travel destination.

REEEC Faculty Affiliate Carol Leff on WILL’s “Focus 580” to Discuss the Ukrainian Protests

Carol Leff (Associate Professor of Political Science) was on WILL’s program “Focus 580” on Tuesday, February 11, along with Ukraine native and Illinois law student Iryna Sukhnatska, to discuss the protests and current political situation in Ukraine.  The following is a re-posting of the content on the program’s website. To view the original web page and listen to an audio stream of the broadcast, please go to this link: http://will.illinois.edu/focus/program/civil-unrest-in-ukraine.

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Civil Unrest in Ukraine

Thousands of protestors have occupied Ukraine’s Maidan square in Kiev since November when President Viktor Yankovych refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. This hour on Focus, we’ll talk about the unrest in the country.

Protestors with demands of European values in Ukraine. November 26, 2013.

Protestors with demands of European values in Ukraine. November 26, 2013.

Anti-government protests in Ukraine have continued to escalate since November with tens of thousands of protestors gathering in Kiev’s Maidan Square throughout the winter. Crowds are now calling for President Viktor Yanukovich’s resignation.

This hour on Focus, host Jim Meadows talks with Associate Professor of Political Science Carol Leff about the protests and about what’s ahead for the country. Iryna Sukhnatska, a law student at the University of Illinois who immigrated to the states from Ukraine in 1999, also joins the show. Some of her family has been protesting, and she says it is hard to watch the violence play out from afar.

The Power of Social Media in Coordinating and Organizing Protests

In November of 2013, Ukraine erupted with furious protests in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to not sign an association agreement with the European Union. Protesters quickly gathered in Independence Square, flanked by lofty symbols of Ukraine: the city’s historic protector, the Archangel Michael, and the hearth-mother Bereginia. The EuroMaidan protests swelled, and have reached numbers not seen since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Independence Square in Kiev (Photo courtesy of Areta Kovalsky)

Independence Square in Kiev (Photo courtesy of Areta Kovalsky)

How has EuroMaidan achieved such a large and coordinated protest effort?  Through the power of social media and social networks.

Social media and social networks have been the crucial tools in disseminating information to protesters, constantly providing updates on the situation, and telling protesters where to go and when to be there.  The protesters are able to quickly interact with organizers and other protesters via social media and mobile phones, allowing information to be quickly and effectively disseminated.  Horizontal communication in the context of organic protest is essential to maintaining a protest movement, as opposed to vertical communication, where no interaction is possible.

Olga Onuch and the Ukrainian Protest Project conducted an in-depth survey of Ukrainians participating in the protests. According to their research, Facebook, VKontakte, internet news sites, text messages, and emails were instrumental in a participant’s decision to engage in protest.  For first-time protesters, all of them “reported receiving text-messages, emails, and telephone calls directly from friends and family pushing them to join-in and telling them where to go.”

The NYU Social Media and Political Participation laboratory has also extensively researched the use of social media in the Ukrainian protests.  They have gathered data on Twitter (collecting hash tags relevant to Ukraine) and Facebook (collecting popular posts on Ukraine). Facebook tends to be geared toward Ukrainians (the vast majority of the EuroMaidan pages are in Ukrainian), and provides information for non-protesters and logistical information for those participating in the protests.  There is an extensive amount of interaction on these Facebook pages.

Barricades on the street

Barricades on the street (Photo courtesy of Areta Kovalsky)

Twitter posts, on the other hand, have been mostly in English.  The NYU researchers conclude that Twitter is being used as a format to spread information internationally.

Government Forces, (namely Berkut) have also been utilizing social media.  However, their use has been ineffective or has backfired against them.  Notably, a video showing a naked protester being beaten by Berkut quickly went viral.  Obviously recorded by a Berkut officer, this video has shown the world the violent and brutal nature of the protests, and strengthened the position of the protesters.

As the situation in Ukraine continues to evolve, social media continues to play an instrumental role in organizing the protests, and to share and spread information throughout the international community.

Here are some useful links:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/10/world/europe/ukraine-timeline.html?_r=0#/#time296_8303

https://www.facebook.com/EuroMaydan

http://hromadske.tv

http://www.pravda.com.ua

http://olgaonuch.com

Sources:

http://smapp.nyu.edu

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/01/02/social-networks-and-social-media-in-ukrainian-euromaidan-protests-2/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2013/12/04/strategic-use-of-facebook-and-twitter-in-ukrainian-protests/

Tori Louise Porter is a former logistics specialist in the U.S. Marine Corps. She is currently an undergraduate student in REEES.  She loves bacon, maple syrup, and ice hockey. 

EuroMaidan: Experiences of a Ukrainian-American

Areta Kovalsky holding the Ukrainian flag among a crowd of people also holding the Ukrainian flag

Areta Kovalsky holding the Ukrainian flag on the maidan

I remember how horrible I felt when I first saw on my Facebook feed the news that the Ukrainian government suspended work on the EU Agreement. As one of many Ukrainians who had hoped that the government would follow through with its promises, I not only felt deceived but was also very concerned about the future of Ukraine. Late that evening, my friends and I headed over to Lviv’s center, where about 50 people were already demonstrating with Ukrainian flags and posters. A little while later, a girl arrived with an EU flag, and we all applauded. I stayed for about half an hour, talking with the other people, most of whom were students, about further plans, including the picket that was being organized the next day outside the regional administration building. Some of my friends went even later to demonstrate and said that there were up to 100 people out.

This happened the night of November 21. During the next month that followed, my life was consumed by the revolution. I spent every free moment on the Lviv EuroMaidan or watching HromadskeTV (Ukraine’s first public TV channel, which was launched early to cover EuroMaidan). I translated articles about the situation and took two trips to Kyiv. I posted updates and pictures, and shared articles about EuroMaidan on Facebook. Many of my friends abroad were very grateful that I was keeping them updated as the events were not always well covered by international news outlets. In a way, everyone who was writing about their experiences on Facebook was acting as a journalist, and these individual efforts, as well as the EuroMaidan Facebook groups that were created, helped keep people in Ukraine and around the world informed.

As Facebook has been an important tool during EuroMaidan for sharing news and coordinating efforts, I thought that in describing some of my EuroMaidan experiences, I would include my Facebook statuses to capture the exact sentiments I was feeling as the revolution unfolded.

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The Sunday after the announcement that the government suspended talks on EU integration, thousands of people gathered in Lviv, in the snow. The following day, November 25, I wrote:

“So wonderful to see that still so many people from Lviv are going to Kyiv, to hear about all the people and organizations and restaurants who are allowing people to come use their facilities, drink some tea, warm up, organize, to see how people are helping each other, to see all the people out in the cold, to see that people are spending the nights outside, to see no party flags flying, and so much more…. it is really quite an amazing time to be in Lviv.”

On Wednesday, before I left for the overnight train to Kyiv, I took a walk to the Lviv EuroMaidan:

“Wow, the center of Lviv right now is amazing. Despite it being the coldest night yet, there are thousands of people on the EuroMaidan, Cherry Band is playing, there is a huge group of people waiting near the Grand Hotel for buses to take them to Kyiv, all the cars that drive by have Ukrainian flags attached to them and they are all honking their horns as they drive by, there is a screen next to the stage with contact information for help finding a place to stay or warm up in Kyiv, and other useful information about Kyiv and the movement in general. I’m about to leave for Kyiv, and know so many other people who are going there tonight or tomorrow night. These next two days will be historic and I am so happy that I can be part of it and right in the center of it.”

After spending Thursday in Kyiv, I wrote:

“It’s hard to believe that exactly one week ago I stood with about 50 Lvivians near the Shevchenko monument in Lviv in support of Euro integration and that a week later I am in Kyiv with thousands of other Ukrainians supporting Ukraine’s European choice and that there are people standing with us on EuroMaidans in cities all over the world. When we first got to the maidan today in Kyiv, we were disappointed at how few people were demonstrating, and most people were in fact from Lviv. Fortunately, thousands of Kyivan students joined us later as did thousands of other people. I witnessed a little scuffle and a little tear gas was sprayed but in general it was calm. However, we have been warned that tomorrow anti-European integration agitators will be on maidan (and being paid for it by the ruling party) but asked to stay peaceful and not be provoked into conflict. Tomorrow is the last day of the summit so it is likely to be the biggest and most important demonstration yet. Today ended on a great note for me to the performances of DakhaBrakha and Dakh Daughters, the musicians of which have been big supporters of EuroMaidan. We even sang the national hymn with the members of DakhBrakha. It was surreal to be listening to my favorite band live on the maidan in Kyiv with so many people who have a come to stand in the cold and fight for a better future for Ukraine.”

The next morning was the day when Ukraine was supposed to sign the agreement. We all knew what was going to happen, but nevertheless it was depressing to wake up to the news. That day there was a pretty big turn out in Kyiv. My Facebook post from the following morning:

“Woke up to calls and messages from concerned friends. I’m OK. We left EuroMaidan around midnight. After we left we heard that special police forces surrounded the maidan and that a few journalists were beaten. But then things calmed down and the demonstration continued so we went to bed. Woke up to the news that they attacked everyone who was there and that dozens of people were injured and arrested. This is unbelievable. This shows that our government does not care to be a democratic country as they beat and disperse peaceful demonstrators who just want a better a future.”

That brutal night changed everything. EuroMaidan was no longer just about European integration, but against police brutality, corruption, and the lack of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Ukraine. The actions of the officials that night only released the pent-up anger and disappointment that so many Ukrainians had with the government. Now the demonstrators were demanding the resignation of the president and the government. Now people who had previously been indifferent or passive were prompted to take to the streets.

On Sunday, December 1, back in Lviv, I wrote:

“Lviv’s center is packed. In Kyiv there are now more than 700,000 people on the streets. Kyivans have taken back the EuroMaidan and have stormed the Kyiv city council building. Today I again have hope in this revolution…”

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A lot has happened since December 1. There have been more clashes and journalists and EuroMaidan supporters have been severely beaten. But it’s now the middle of January, and people are still occupying the Maidan. The number of demonstrators has decreased somewhat because some people have lost hope, feel that the chance to change something was lost, that more extreme measures should have been taken. However, even if people eventually leave the protest camp, EuroMaidan will not end because the movement will continue in other forms. People are getting organized, informed, are realizing that if they want the country to change they need to start with themselves, and that they can’t wait for the people in power to do it for them. EuroMaidan started a movement for a democratic, brighter future for Ukraine; as a consequence, I think Ukraine has changed more in the last few months than it has in the 20-plus years of its independence.

Areta Kovalsky graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a major in International Studies and an undergraduate minor in the REEEC degree program. She went on to get a master’s degree in Eastern European Studies from the University of Toronto. The last couple of years, she has been living in Lviv, Ukraine, working as a translator and for various IT companies.

Ukraine: Why Maidan Matters

After Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November 2013 after years of negotiation, chaos broke loose on Kiev’s main square, officially named Maidan Nezalezhnosti.  The main square, known to locals simply as Maidan and now also as Euromaidan, has been a place to gather for both fests and protests, from New Year’s celebrations to political reorganization.  Among other things, Maidan has stood as a symbol of freedom since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and now, after the recent protests, ever more so.  But what do the results of the current protests mean for the freedom of Ukraine’s people?

A view of the Maidan camp, a tent with a wood workshop

A view of the Maidan camp, a tent with a wood workshop

Although the Euromaidan protest movement started strong and attracted more people than any other protest since the Orange Revolution, after Yanukovich’s decision to accept a $15 billion loan and oil agreement from Russia, the protest attendance slowly died down.  Now, Maidan is home to a camp of political activists with their own organized system of services, almost living as a state within a state.  The camp has closed off the whole square and restricts business and tourism in the area, and without an organized goal, the movement appears to have no forward momentum.

What is missing from the Euromaidan movement is a leader and an organized goal.  Yanukovich’s decision to completely reject the opinion of his protesting citizens and hardly even acknowledge them shows a lack of respect for his constituents and a restricted freedom for the citizens of Ukraine.  The Ukrainians want a better standard of life, and are finally ready to strengthen Maindan’s symbolic meaning and stand up for themselves.  Improved international acceptance as a reputable state, integration as an equal partner on the global business scene, and better overall awareness of Ukraine’s wealth of resources and potential are all included in the vast list of overarching goals on the road to more freedom for the Ukrainian people.  The younger generation’s participation in the protests show a form of “social enlightenment,” but without direction, the potential unfortunately diminishes.

Even though the loan agreement with Russia helps in the short term, the European Union Association Agreement, even with its imperfections, would have been a big step forward toward achieving the ideals of a freer Ukrainian population and a better life for the Ukrainian people.  The reforms required by the agreement with the EU would have proved to be difficult at first but, in the long run, would have achieved a more democratic environment and forward movement at the global scale, exactly the real unwritten goal of the Euromaidan movement.  As the protest turnouts have shown, there are already willing participants.  Although not specifically stated by the protesters, an end goal to Euromaidan exists.  Now all that is needed is a leader to organize the movement and outline the needed steps toward reform. Success is an option.

What exactly does Maidan mean for Ukraine and its people?  Maidan stands as a magnificent symbol of freedom, hope, and a better future.  The fact that the main square has been used as a protest location for a number of different movements and is now, after almost two months of protest, still occupied by protesters shows the significance of Maidan Nezalezhnosti.  The Euromaidan movement may not have been as great of a success as hoped for, but rest assured that in the future, any other large scale protests will take place at Euromaidan. Results will be achieved.  The more the Ukrainian people make their desires known, the more the world will know what they want. With Euromaidan as the center of action, the possibilities for change are within their reach.

A view of one of the barricades blocking off access to Maidan

A view of one of the barricades blocking off access to Maidan

Additional Reading:

Zachary Grotovsky is an MA candidate in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Upon graduating in May 2014, he hopes to find a position where he can take advantage of his German studies, and his experiences in Ukraine and Poland to help people realize how much knowledge of other cultures puts them ahead. He became interested in Poland and Ukraine through contact with the people from those countries while traveling, and now frequents Ukraine as a favorite travel destination.