After Gezi Park Protests: Rethinking Turkish Politics and Political Culture – 8th Annual Turkish Studies Symposium

Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey in summer 2013

Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey, during summer 2013 (Image source:

This year’s Turkish Studies Symposium, organized by the European Union Center, focused on reevaluating politics and society in Turkey after an event that shook Turkey and the rest of the world, and called for a change in the perceptions of this key U.S. ally. After Gezi, the paradigm of Turkey as a model Muslim democracy for the Middle Eastern region could not be used in the same manner anymore.

Professor Fatma Müge Göçek from the University of Michigan discussed the increased role of market forces and consumerism in contemporary Turkey, especially visible during the almost twelve-year rule  of the AKP. Dr. Göçek emphasized that the prioritization of business affected various areas of life, including human rights and democracy, and, in particular, groups that do not have as many stakes in business and consumerism, such as the youth and women. These two groups were quite active in the protests in Istanbul; the government called them “çapulcu,” meaning “plunderers” in Turkish, a label young people accepted and wore with pride ever since, in a sense changing the very meaning of the word. The speaker also stressed the importance of the spaces where the protests took place and where they found support: the cities and the Turkish diaspora, which generally strongly supported the protest movement. On the other hand, she argued that the two most important spaces for the AKP government have been mosques, the places of worship, and shopping malls. The name of the party translates to Justice and Development Party, where justice is not the justice that relates directly to human rights or an independent judicial system, but justice as seen through a religious lens. At the same time, according to the AKP, increased consumption signals that society as a whole has developed. Dr. Göçek pointed out that the shopping malls have remained sanitized and secured spaces, largely unaffected by the mass protests. She concluded that life has become increasingly hard for anyone who is not a consumer or a believer, but she hopes that it is precisely in the two spaces mentioned earlier, cities and the diaspora, that we will see the “seeds of change” for Turkey.

Ph.D. Candidate Avital Livny from Stanford University gave an extremely interesting  presentation on a number of surveys done with the participants in the Gezi protests, which focused on determining what is the state of political participation in Turkey and where the protests fall in terms of this important question. In general, prior to the Gezi events, Turkish citizens have not been particularly active in the country’s political life. Turkey was the country with the 23rd least active public in terms of politics, much less active, especially considering that other countries with similar results in the larger Middle Eastern region are much less democratic. About 48% of the participants in the Gezi protests have not participated in a similar protest. Out of these newly politically active people, a large portion are women, along with religious people with traditionalist views. It is also interesting to look at people’s motivations for taking part in the protests: 50% of the people came to protest because they were aggravated by the disproportional violence used against the initial, green protest; 19% said they were protesting because of the destruction of trees and nature, while 14% had been motivated by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s divisive rhetoric and speeches. While the very active participation of young and educated people can be seen as a continuation of an existing trend, the exceptionally high participation rate of women and the more active participation of religious people can be seen as a new trend directly tied to Gezi.

Dr. Sinan Ciddi’s presentation focused on an overview of Turkish political life, in particular with regard to the recent local elections and the upcoming presidential elections. The speaker underlined the fact that religion has also played a central role in formulating AKP policies, noting the fact that the party has only recently been one vote away from being banned as a political movement because of its religiously oriented agenda. Mr. Ciddi also touched upon the theme of increased consumption and a growing number of shopping centers being seen as proof of intense development. He stressed that perhaps the main reason for the consistent support for the current government is the perception that it has largely performed rather well in terms of: a significant growth of the economy; the large and well maintained highways; and large construction projects, including the project for a third bridge across the Bosphorus, something that, as the speaker in jest noted, would hardly be noticed in a country like the U.S.  Additionally, Dr. Ciddi observed that one major reason for the limited costs for the government and the relatively low decrease in support is the fact that Turkey is a country where it is extremely difficult to establish a new, grass-roots political movement. Even if the registration and monetary problems are overcome, it would be a formidable challenge to rise up against an established political force like the AKP, which is currently in power.

Turkish Studies Symposium

Dr. Bill Park discussing Turkey and its Kurdish population

Dr. Bill Park from Kings College London closed the symposium with some aspects of Turkey’s engagement in the Middle East and the Kurdish issue, expressing his concerns that the recent opening towards Turkey’s Kurds may not end in bringing the desired peace, but rather further complications in the issue. While Dr. Park expressed a general pessimism with regard to the future and possible results of the domestic opening towards the Kurds, he also stressed that Turkey and the surrounding region are really in the midst of a period of very potent developments, and there is no way to tell for sure what the near future holds. His feeling is that dramatic changes may be in store.

Overall, this was a wonderful symposium dealing with current events in Turkey and offering different points of view on the significant changes that have happened over the course of recent years. The Gezi Park protests that took over the entire country last June apparently signal many upcoming changes not only in Turkish politics but, quite likely, Turkish society as a whole. They definitely call for a reevaluation of the dynamic developments that we have seen with modern Turkey during the almost twelve year- long AKP rule.

Hristo Alexiev is an M.A. student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, he has pursued Balkan Studies and East European and Eurasian Studies at the Sofia University, North Harris College, University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin. He is also a graduate of the Music Department of Sofia University. Before being accepted into the MA program at REEEC on a FLAS fellowship in 2012, Hristo worked in Kosovo for five months in 2011, providing linguistic support to the US troops in KFOR. A recipient of the FLAS 2012 Summer Fellowship and the Boren Fellowship, Hristo studied in Turkey at Boğaziçi University during the 2012-2013 academic year. His acceptance of the Boren Fellowship includes an obligation to work for one year for the federal government. He hopes to pursue a career in the foreign service.

EuroMaidan, World War II Parallels, and “Feelings from the Past”

This is a re-posting of a blog post by Illinois alumna Areta Kovalsky. To view the original post, please see


This post is dedicated to EuroMaidan and the Ukrainians’ never-ending struggle to be free. These past few months, as I experienced a revolution and war for Ukraine’s freedom and integrity, I have often thought of my ancestors and how they must have felt during WWII (and earlier liberation movements) and the partisan struggle to liberate Ukraine from totalitarian powers. I’ve always been fascinated by WWII and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), but never in my life did I think I would feel what they felt, get a taste of war, death, and the fight for freedom, such uncertainty, and love for Ukraine in a context similar to theirs. Tying into the theme of my blog, this particular “shadow of the past” is one that I have felt rather than seen. I have encountered what I will call “feelings from the past.” These sentiments which were felt by Ukrainians in WWII have been transferred to a new generation of Ukrainians who are reliving the liberation movement, re-struggling for a free, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine. Of course, EuroMaidan and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine in no ways compares to the scale and consequences of WWII, and I don’t pretend to believe I understand the extent of the suffering that the people felt at that time (especially as I wasn’t in Kyiv during the bloodiest days), but nonetheless, I can’t help but draw certain parallels.


I remember one day in late February I was walking toward the Old Town from work. It was dusk and as I walked along the cobblestone streets, in the distance between the Austrian-era buildings I saw on the city hall tower’s the Ukrainian flag flapping in the wind. I immediately thought about how much Ukrainian blood had been spilled for it to be there. I couldn’t believe that in the year 2014 Ukrainians yet again had to fight for their freedom, fight against a new type of feudalism, new type of Russian imperialism, a new totalitarian power. Ukraine had been independent for just over two decades – the longest it has been a free country since the Middle Ages, the longest a blue and yellow flag had been able to fly safely on Ukrainian land – when again its sovereignty was being threatened.

The flag flies proudly in Lviv, but during the revolution, displaying the yellow and blue banner was an anti-government act, and my mother was even worried for my safety in Lviv because I had a yellow-blue ribbon on my purse and she told me to be careful at night in case some gave me trouble for it…

Kovalsky 2 - Ukrainian FlagLooking at the flag, I thought about all the people who had fought for a free Ukraine throughout the ages, but in particular about the heroes of the Heavenly Hundred who had just been shot down in the center of Kyiv. The heroes, mostly young men, couldn’t sit home while their future was being robbed. I heard so many stories from WWII about families being torn apart, about lost husbands, fathers, brothers. Was it really happening again, in the twenty-first century? Never in my life did I think I would be re-feeling some of what my grandparents felt when they were close to my age, re-living a similar struggle. It all felt so surreal.

I sometimes think that the main reason I moved to Ukraine, the reason I am so drawn here, pulled here by some forces, is because I needed to return to Ukraine in place of my grandparents who were forced to leave their beloved country, and who themselves were never able to return. I feel that I was guided to Ukraine because the love for and attachment to Ukraine was passed down from my grandparents, and as they couldn’t return, I am doing it for them. To me it really does feel like I returned home even though I was born and grew up in a completely different country and culture.

However, within a few months of obtaining my permanent residency, settling into a promising new job, feeling ready to settle down, Ukraine was caught it yet another war for its independence. It started as a peaceful revolution, first for closer ties with the EU, then against corruption, lack of rule of law, and a totalitarian government. Eventually the center of Kyiv became a real battlefield, a frontline between Ukrainians who just wanted a better a future and the paid government police and hired thugs defending the money and opulence of the government.

Barricades at Maidan in Kyiv (December 2013)

Barricades at Maidan in Kyiv (December 2013)

My grandparents’ generation fight for freedom didn’t succeed, there was no independent Ukraine after the war, and so being intelligentsia and having taken part in the liberation struggle, my relatives would have been persecuted under the Soviets. Thus in 1944 when the Soviets were again approaching western Ukraine, my grandparents had to flee west. During EuroMaidan, I remember thinking that one of the reasons that EuroMaidan had to succeed was so that the active members would not be persecuted. Many people took risks by defying the government, like the mayor of Lviv, the administration and many of students of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, etc, and they would have all have been punished for it in one way or another…

A Sunday national assembly on Maidan in Kyiv in December

A Sunday national assembly on Maidan in Kyiv in December

I remember even when the revolution was just beginning, and all the organizing that was taking place, when people were finding food and shelter for people who wanted to go to Kyiv and protest, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the way families in the villages sheltered and fed the partisans during WWII. Eventually sotnias (defense/military units) were formed during EuroMaidan and I couldn’t help but think that the last time sotnias were formed was during the war by the UPA.

Barricades in the center of Lviv - probably the last time Lviv was barricaded was during WWII

Barricades in the center of Lviv – probably the last time Lviv was barricaded was during WWII

The UPA slogan “Glory to Ukraine” and response “Glory to the Heroes” as well as UPA songs sounded from maidan’s across the country, and the black and red UPA flags flew next to the yellow and blue ones. There are in fact a lot more parallels between WWII and EuroMaidan/the Russian invasion…


And once we finally had a taste of victory, finally ousted the corrupt president, finally felt we had a chance to completely reboot the country, root out the Soviet mentality once and for all, put an end to corruption, we realized we were up against something potentially a lot more serious and even more unpredictable – the superpower to our north-east. Although our taste of victory was bittersweet, as it was tainted with the grief we felt for the heroes who lost their lives, we felt that the country had changed for the better, that more was accomplished in those few months than the 20 plus years of Ukrainain independence. After the Yanukovych government was disbanded, I felt as if I were living in a new country, it felt easier to breath, things were starting to look up, and I felt like the deaths were not in vain. But less than a week after the government was overthrown we were faced with war. Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and currently Russia’s attempts to destabilize Ukraine are only increasing. The situation in eastern Ukraine is very serious and it seems Putin has no intention to stop the aggression.

When the invasion first began, my foreigner friends and I were often asked if we planned to leave Ukraine. I never considered it for a moment. My mom told me I could stay with my parents’ friend’s parents in Poland if I did have to leave. And just the other day she said her friends in the States asked her if I have an exit strategy. I don’t think the conflict will ever physically reach this part of Ukraine, but it was and still is a scary time to be in Ukraine. If the conflict did spread, I, like my grandparents, would have to make the difficult decision of deciding whether to stay or leave. Of course my move wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as theirs was – I wouldn’t have to make a fresh start in a country where I don’t know the language, leaving behind close relatives and the only life I had – but it would still be heartbreaking for me.

Almost every time I talk to my mom she tells me to think about what I would take with me if I needed to make a quick escape from Ukraine. It made me think about what my grandparents took with them when they left Ukraine. Very few things of theirs from their lives in Ukraine have survived. They couldn’t take a lot with them and a lot was lost, stolen, or broken along the way. They took photos, documents, a china set (only one mug survived with a broken ear), some embroidery (pillow cases, portières), kilims, jewelry, wedding rings, a balsam wood cross from Jerusalem. My mom said to make sure I take my antique embroidered blouses.

Center of Lviv after the bloody events in Kyiv

Center of Lviv after the bloody events in Kyiv

Spring has arrived in Lviv, the summer terraces have been built, on the weekends the center is packed with tourists and locals – life goes on, but we are all still very worried about what is happening in the east of our country and no one has any idea how things will end…

And we have not forgotten about the fallen heroes – memorials, graffiti, shrines, billboards commemorating them are found all over the city. Now in addition to the Heroes of UPA Street, Lviv has a street named after the Heroes of EuroMaidan. Just as the heroes of WWII have not been forgotten, they live on in the people, memories, urban landscape, hearts, so to the heroes of EuroMaidan live on.

One of the first shrines in Lviv to the fallen heroes

One of the first shrines in Lviv to the fallen heroes

I hope one day these particular feelings from the past will stop being passed on to new generations, and instead only the feelings of love and pride will be passed on.

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.


Local Ties to Unrest in Ukraine

Illinois history professor and REEEC faculty affiliate Mark Steinberg was interviewed on Champaign-Urbana’s WICD NewsChannel 15 for a story entitled “Local Ties to Unrest in Ukraine.” This is a re-posting of the transcript of the newscast that was broadcast on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. To view the newscast video and the original transcript on the channel’s website, please see


CHAMPAIGN– Just 10 days after the fall of the Soviet Union, Masha Trenhaile moved from what would become the nation of Ukraine to the United States. She’s still close with many family and friends still living there. She says, “We are still in each other’s lives, we still participate in each other’s birth of children, weddings, anniversaries, things like that. Every time I get to go back I definitely get together with all of them.”

The tension in the region, after first a political revolution and now a foreign occupation from Russian troops, weighs on her mind. “Although there is not a day to day conflict that happens, that happened before, it is still felt by everyone in the country.”

Unmarked soldiers in Crimea

Unmarked soldiers in Crimea (Image Source)

Ukraine is a nation with many diverse languages, cultures, and histories, which professor of history Mark Steinberg says, makes it so difficult to draw political boundaries. The violence, he says, is a shock to Ukranians. “I think it’s quite terrifying, precisely because there’s no real history of this.”

Steinberg says since 1991, there’s been a relative stability in the diversity of Ukraine. “Everybody’s worried about civil war, and it isn’t so much because Ukraine in recent history has had a history of ethnic violence, the violence that took place in Kiev was a shock to everybody.”

For Masha, her friends, and her family, it’s a situation that appears to have no easy solution. “There’s also some kind of a notion that there’s a much bigger deal brewing and there’s a potential for much larger conflict happening if this were to continue.”

Adam Rife reporting.

Ukraine Update, Part 1: “The only thing that is certain now is uncertainty”

Protesters on Kiev's Maidan Sqaure

Protesters on Kiev’s Maidan Square (Image Source)

When Ukraine’s one-time president, Viktor Yanukovych, decided in late November 2013 to scrap agreements that would bring the country into closer partnership with (and possibly lead to eventual accession into) the European Union, it is certain he was naïve to the eventual consequences. The sequence of consequences began with a peaceful and festive pro-EU and anti-Yanukovych protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square, resembling in many ways the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution—a political protest movement inveighing against the shady electoral practices of, who else, Yanukovych. Over time, however, decisions made by the government in dealing with the protesters, along with escalatory measures taken by some factions within the protest movement itself, led the cauldron of the EuroMaidan to overflow: an unstable truce between the Yanukovych government and regime opponents broke down last week, leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious injuries. Fearing for his liberty, if not his life, Yanukovych has fled, and armed oppositionists now control the palatial, ostentatious presidential palace. The only thing that is certain now is uncertainty.

Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych

Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych (Image Source)

Ukraine (nee “the Ukraine”) is an often-overlooked country with a geographical location that has placed it in the middle of much of the important action in Western history. In fact, the name “Ukrayina” [oo-kra-yi-na­] can be translated to mean “borderland,” suggesting Ukraine’s historical position at the intersection of powerful multiethnic empires, including the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire at the start of the 20th century. Ukraine today is, in geographical terms, larger than European powers such as France and Germany, and occupied by close to 45 million residents, more than Canada or Australia.

The politics of Ukraine since the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, can be argued to be more or less salutary (more open than its neighbor to the north, Belarus, but quite a bit less so than the Baltic countries, the most politically “reformed” of the 15 post-Soviet states). The former Soviet apparatchik Leonid Kravchuk was elected the country’s first president in 1991. He was followed in 1996 by Leonid Kuchma, known for supporting the creation of a new Constitution along with various forms of oligarch-aiding and electoral corruption (and notorious for the “Cassette Scandal,” in which he is heard on a recording to order the disappearance of a troublesome journalist who was later found lacking a head). As alluded to above, the fraudulent results of the 2004 election for president, between Western Europe- and western Ukraine-leaning Viktor Yuschenko and Russia- and eastern Ukraine-leaning Yanukovych led up to the peaceful Orange Revolution, and Yuschenko’s eventual taking power and a period of rule that was seen by some as favoring one region of the country and one grand historical narrative (“Ukraine as victim”) over all others.

Both the Orange Revolution nearly a decade before and the as-yet-unpigmented contemporary revolution point up important divisions in Ukraine at large. Most divides map onto a regional split between western (and to some extent central) Ukraine and southern Ukraine. Contemporary western and central Ukraine is characterized by relatively widespread usage of either the Ukrainian language or the Ukrainian-Russian hybrid termed surzhyk. Further, the economy of this region seems to be upwardly mobile, or at least moving in the right direction, with Lviv serving as a burgeoning IT hub and Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, a focal point of commerce. The east and south of Ukraine, most particularly the autonomous region of Crimea (the present-day location of the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet), are largely Russian speaking, with many having closer ties to Russia than they do to Ukraine or “Europe,” as it is now discussed. The economy of this region might be compared to our own “rust belt”: a once-thriving area of heavy industry now characterized by poverty and hopelessness among many of those who cannot or will not leave for greener pastures. While the differences between these two regions do not of necessity predict unrest or, as some have suggested, partition of the country, the outcomes as regards these divisions are contingent upon the actions of the new political regime. Anecdotally, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) very recently removed Russian as a state language alongside Ukrainian, an inflammatory move that has brought criticism even from cooler heads in the west of the country. The new regime must practice diplomacy in order to maintain stability, even after their momentous victory over the corrupt and authoritarian Yanukovych regime.

Arsenyi Yatsenyuk

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Image Source)

Beyond regional differences, Ukraine as a whole is suffering from monumental economic woes. Indeed, Yanukovych’s initial decision to drop talks with the EU was bought by Russia with the promise of cheap energy flows and a $15 billion loan, few (explicit) strings attached. With the ouster of Yanukovych, Russia has halted its economic largesse and the new head of the Ukrainian National Bank has announced that his main goal will be to secure a loan from the Western-oriented International Monetary Fund (IMF). Officials have suggested that the country needs close to $35 billion in order to turn the economy around. Even if such a loan is granted, the IMF will doubtless require significant cutbacks in expenditures and other austerity measures, which will decrease the popularity of any new government rather expeditiously. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of newly-freed Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party and one of the favorites for the position of prime minister, suggested that for this reason anybody playing a key role in the new government would be “committing political suicide,” perhaps going some way towards explaining the delays in forming such a government. Further pain may follow, as Russia has the option of pressuring Ukraine economically both through increased energy prices and trade sanctions: Russia remains Ukraine’s most important trading partner, making up a greater portion of Ukrainian trade than the European Union as a whole.

While there is hope that the long-term outcome of the Maidan protests is in the hands of those who have sacrificed so much to change the status quo in Ukraine, there is much to suggest that Ukraine’s domestic and geopolitical fate lies substantially outside of its own control. On the one hand, Ukraine can accept the immediate and clearly-delineated sacrifices that accompany an IMF loan and eventual closer relations with the European Union. Many in the country do in fact feel themselves to be “European,” but how much are they willing to give up in order to join the club? If it were not for the country’s dismal economic state, Ukraine might choose to “go it alone,” pragmatically navigating a middle course between the EU and Russia. With this being an impossibility, the most likely outcome is Western patronage and domestic austerity, with all of the reactive tumult that this might entail. The most that the new regime can do is try to soften this blow as much as possible with inclusive social policies (e.g., allowing Russian as a second state language), a program of reducing state corruption, and persistent reminders that the struggles will be “worth it.” The Putin regime, it should be said, will quite rationally be waiting to take advantage of any backlash these likely hardships might produce. We should expect a great deal of propaganda spouting forth suggesting a conspiracy against Ukraine and the idea that Ukrainians, as a part of the historic Slavic family of “Kievan Rus,” should never have trusted “the West” in the first place. All of this entails that to guide Ukraine into Europe will be a more than normally difficult task, and the EU, along with the US, will need to take into consideration the possible consequences of pushing Ukraine and its people too hard and too fast. For now, though, we can be thankful that there is peace on the Maidan.

Kyle Estes is a Ph.D. Candidate in political science at the University of Illinois. His focus is on the former Soviet Union, and especially issues of identity politics in the region. His dissertation looks into the causes and dynamics of the 2010 ethnic rioting in southwestern Kyrgyzstan. Upon completing his dissertation, he hopes to find a job at a university in warmer climes. 

Understanding the Ukrainian Maidan: Between Russia and the EU

Ukraine has been in a state of turmoil since November 2013, when President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union.  The refusal to sign the agreement served as the catalyst for ongoing mass protest and revolt in Kyiv, and across the country.

On February 14, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, the European Union Center, and Pi Sigma Alpha co-sponsored a roundtable discussion concerning the protests and the greater political situation in Ukraine.  The roundtable was comprised of three speakers: Carol Leff (Associate Professor, Political Science), Oleksandra Wallo (Lecturer, Slavic Languages and Literatures) and Kostas Kourtikakis (Lecturer, Political Science).

David Cooper, Director of REEEC, introduces the panelists Kostas Kourtikakis, Carol Leff, and Oleksandra Wallo

David Cooper, Director of REEEC, introduces the panelists Kostas Kourtikakis, Carol Leff, and Oleksandra Wallo

Carol Leff began the discussion by providing an economic, political, social, and transnational context for the situation in Ukraine.

Economically, Ukraine has been in a state of sustained economic crisis and under performance.  Due to a lack of international trade and international investment, Ukraine suffers from low GDP and GNP.  Professor Leff espoused that this economic failure was also a political failure.

Politically, Ukraine is divided between Western Ukraine and the Eastern Ukraine.  These divisions have created distinct orientations towards Western Europe and the European Union, or towards Russia and the Customs Union.  The political divisions also echo regional and linguistic divisions, i.e. the Ukrainian-speaking West and Russian-speaking East.  The East/West orientation was clearly seen in the 2004 Orange Revolution and in the 2010 Presidential Elections.

Carol Leff discusses the linguistic and ethnic divisions in Ukraine

Carol Leff discusses the linguistic and ethnic divisions in Ukraine

The political and social division of Ukraine is important in understanding the protest trigger in November 2013.  As Professor Leff explained, Yanukovych did not sign the Association Agreement with the European Union because was facing immense pressure from Russia to join the Customs Union.  His stated reasoning behind not signing was to protect the national security of Ukraine and trade relations with Russia.  Russia also guaranteed a $15 billion loan to Ukraine in return for not signing the Association Agreement.  Western Ukraine, and those Ukrainians oriented towards Western Europe and the European Union do not share Yanukovych’s belief in a Russian-oriented Ukraine.

When the protests began in November 2013 they were primarily concerned with the issue of joining the European Union.  As the protests intensified and the police began to violently crackdown, people began to fight and protest concerning the larger issues at hand (such as the rampant corruption of the Yanukovych regime).

Oleksandra Wallo spoke on the protests specifically, and addressed the questions of who is protesting, how are they protesting and resisting, and the popular attitudes of protesters.

Dr. Wallo explained that the initial protest was mainly students.  Other people rapidly joined the protests in response to the crackdown upon the students, and to relieve the Orange Revolution.  The protests are made of men and women, and have generally been a younger, university-educated demographic.

The protesters took over many buildings, including the Kiev Central Administration Building, which served as a sort of headquarters for the protesters.  There has also been an elaborate systems of barricades erected by protesters to their territory from police attacks.

Oleksandra Wallo discussing the Ukrainian protests

Oleksandra Wallo discussing the Ukrainian protests

Dr. Wallo described the protests as a “self-organizing” organism.  Doctors have volunteered medical services, chefs have volunteered to cook food for protesters, and a Self Defense Unit was created to protect the protesters.  Artists and musicians have also been involved with protesting, providing inspirational art and music.

Dr. Wallo also explained the method of resistance the protesters undertook.  A barricade system has been in place as a means to protect protesters, and deter the police from attacking.  During the more violent clashes with police, protesters have started large fires and burned tires.  To actively defend against the police, protesters have utilized Molotov cocktails, slingshots, and cobblestones.

Kostas Kourtikakis was the last speaker, and he discussed Ukraine and the European Union from the perspective of the European Union.  He focused on the current relationship between the EU and Ukraine, the future of the EU’s relationship with Ukraine, and the implications for other countries.

He began by explaining the two frameworks (bilateral and multilateral) that the European Union uses in creating relationships with countries.  Bilateral agreements include an Association Agreement to promote economic integration into the EU.  Multilateral frameworks include the European Neighborhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership.  Professor Kourtikakis explained that the countries that have these types of agreements with the EU are usually never going to be full EU members.

The European Union has a strategic interest in Eastern Europe.  They want to create stable political environments around EU member states, increase trade, and keep gas pipelines from Russia flowing.  However, due to the current situation in Ukraine, there is a changing discourse on the possibility of Ukraine’s membership in the EU.  The future of other countries’ Association Agreements are now also on hold.

Russia has a vital interest in Ukraine, and Professor Kourtikakis stated that Russia is essentially competing with the EU for Ukraine.  Although Russia would greatly prefer that Ukraine join the Customs Union, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan, instead of signing an association agreement with the EU, it seems doubtful that Ukraine will join the Customs Union.

Kostas Kourtikakis explains the EU's Eastern Partnership

Kostas Kourtikakis explains the EU’s Eastern Partnership

At the time of the roundtable, protesters were still fighting in the streets.  On February 18, massive street battles broke out between protesters and the police, with estimates of 70-100 killed and hundreds wounded.  Within several days, protesters re-took key buildings, Parliament voted to return to the 2004 Constitution,  Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison, elections were scheduled for May, and Viktor Yanukovych was chased out of Kiev with a warrant for his arrest.

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. 

Protest in Ukraine: A Minute with Political Scientist Carol Leff

This is a re-posting of an interview published by the U of I News Bureau. To see the original interview, please see:


Editor’s note: Three months of protests in Ukraine erupted into new violence beginning Tuesday (Feb. 18) as riot police attempted to clear protesters from a square in the capital of Kiev, with dozens killed and many more injured. Despite appearances, however, this is not a simple people-versus-government conflict, says Carol Leff, a political science professor at Illinois who teaches courses on Soviet, post-Soviet and Eastern European politics. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, sits between Russia to the east and the European Union to the west, where it borders new EU members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The country also is divided by region, ethnicity and language, with western and central regions largely speaking Ukrainian and eastern and southern areas Russian. All of this plays a role in the conflict. Leff spoke about the situation with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Prof. Carol Leff

Prof. Carol Leff

These protests began in November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled back from signing a trade agreement with the EU, angering those with loyalties to the west. Protesters have since called for the president’s resignation. So how much of this conflict is about east versus west, and how much of it is about other issues?

The east-west divide is definitely a political and not merely linguistic divide, as electoral maps since independence in 1991 clearly show. President Yanukovych’s political base is in the east, where he was born, while the protesters are predominantly from central and western regions. These areas do hold differing opinions on key issues, with the east more oriented to neighboring Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Customs Union, and the rest of the country more likely to aspire to EU membership.

Ironically, though, it was the Yanukovych administration that brokered and last year initialed the EU agreement before reneging at the last minute. Observers saw the president as positioning himself for re-election by appealing beyond his eastern stronghold.

But what has fueled the protests now transcends the EU issue alone. Every government attempt since November to repress the demonstrations has only swelled the ranks of the protesters, whose demands are now for constitutional reform, an end to corruption and early elections. These demands are much broader than a foreign policy dispute.

You say Ukraine’s economic problems have played an important role in what’s going on. How so?

Misgovernment has squandered the agricultural and industrial promise that Ukraine showed when it gained independence. Yanukovych would not have felt such strong pressure to pick sides between the EU and Russia if the country’s debt and balance of payments problems weren’t so acute – verging on default. Ukraine badly needed a bailout last fall. Economists tend to see the EU Association Agreement that Yanukovych declined to sign as a better long-term prospect for economic growth, but in the short run, in November, Putin made the offer Yanukovych couldn’t refuse – both a bigger loan up front, the largest Russia has ever given, and energy price relief for a Ukrainian economy that depends on Russian oil and gas.

And of course there was direct Russian pressure for an “either-or” choice, including the hold-up of border trade and some not entirely veiled threats of economic retaliation. Ukraine is caught in between the EU and Russia, since it trades about equally with both, and is better off when no choices between them are necessary.

What are the perceived stakes for Russia and Putin in all this? For the EU?

Russia has multiple stakes, both practical and cultural. Russians see the state of Kievan Rus of a millennium ago, centered on the city of Kiev, as the early Russian state. Kiev is of course now the Ukrainian capital.

Much more recently, it was the Ukrainian independence referendum in 1991 that led Russian President (Boris) Yeltsin, only a week later, to hold the summit to dissolve the Soviet Union. Without Ukraine, the Soviet Union seemed pointless. Economically, Ukraine is central to Putin’s Customs Union project. Putin has accused the EU of intervening in Ukrainian domestic affairs, though he has modulated that tone in the past week.

The EU in turn wants a stable and economically open “neighborhood” at its eastern borders, but its hydra-headed foreign policy apparatus creates problems for agile response to the changing Ukrainian situation. There is discussion now of using the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – to which both Europe and post-Soviet states belong – as a mediation forum.

Several stories have noted that this is the first time Ukraine has experienced significant political violence since leaving the Soviet Union peacefully in 1991. Even its Orange Revolution in 2004, which reversed a rigged election, occurred without bloodshed. So how much does this recent violence raise concerns for the future?

Until now, the political divisions in Ukraine, although very real, have been underpinned by an overwhelming consensus on the legitimacy of the new state. The independence referendum of 1991 passed with more than 92 percent support. What’s new is the extent of polarization, and the bitterness and anger that are creating destruction and clashes across the country.

One thing that differentiates this period from the Orange Revolution is that the Orange Revolution had a tight focus on achieving a re-run of the fraudulent presidential election, with a clear leader in the opposition candidate, and a judicial mechanism that affirmed the need for a re-run.

It is not obvious now that the protesters are willing to accept any opposition spokesmen as negotiators with the regime. In fact, knowing the feeling on the streets, opposition leaders in January refused Yanukovych’s offer that one of them become prime minister. Anything that looks like compromise with Yanukovych is toxic on the streets. And that is a real problem. It takes two sides to negotiate, and the protesters don’t want any negotiation that leaves Yanukovych in office.

Editor’s note: To contact Carol Leff, call 217-300-4338; email leffc(at)illinois(dot)edu.

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:


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.