We've seen the apocalyptic images of anti-government demonstrations in Kyiv. In the last week, the death toll spiked, rising to at least 77 dead after violent clashes broke out between protesters and police. Independence Square, known as Maidan, resembles a medieval battleground with encampments, barricades, raging fires and hundreds to thousands of armed and armor-clad fighters.
The end of the week, however, has brought with it a tentative respite in the form of a political deal. Ukraine’s president agreed to call early elections. And the country’s parliament, dominated by the president’s own party, voted to roll back presidential powers.
It all began three months ago when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reversed course last minute and abandoned a far-reaching trade agreement with the EU. Instead, he chose to pursue a closer economic partnership with Russia. Protests only gathered in force and number after police raided a peaceful demonstration of mostly sleeping students on Nov. 30.
It’s tempting to reduce the situation to a geopolitical tug-of-war between pro-Russian and pro-European factions. The reality is more nuanced but also more basic. Ukrainian journalists explain what the ongoing demonstration — known as Euromaidan — means to them:
Only a couple of months ago we could not have imagined that in the 21st century, in the heart of Europe, people will be kidnapped, tortured and killed for their civic rights….
We want to live in an honest and fair country, where individual rights are respected, where you can freely express your views and not be afraid of the police, where courts are just and cannot be bought, where there is real competition in business and opportunity to earn [money] in an honest way.
That’s why we want a full reset of the system of government…. We want to live in a country where the government knows that human dignity is supreme.
The civil unrest has brought together groups across Ukraine’s political spectrum — united in government opposition but not necessarily sharing the same objectives. The protests have also drawn the notice of the international community. And it's all a long way from being sorted.
Here are the key players to watch as Ukraine attempts to put the pieces back together.
1. Viktor Yanukovych, President of Ukraine
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych at an EU-Ukraine summit in Brussels in 2013. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)
Yanukovych became president in February 2010. The DW notes, “Since then he’s done everything possible to stay in power. His first attempt at leadership failed in 2004 after a court annulled the results of a run-off election amid fraud allegations and mass protests that became known as the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych has no intention of repeating that experience.”
Yanukovych backtracked on the landmark EU agreement after an unpublicized eight-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly explained “how much damage Russia could do to Ukraine’s economy and how difficult that would make Yanukovych’s bid for reelection in 2015.” DW adds: “Yanukovych’s reactions to the current anti-government protests have ranged from expressions of understanding to threats of tougher action. That suggests divisions with the Yanukovych camp.”
2. Oligarchs and the Party of Regions
In 2010, Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov paid $221 million for a penthouse at One Hyde Park in London. The world's most expensive apartment building has a McLaren showroom on the premises. (YouTube)
President Yanukovych and the ruling Party of Regions are supported by a circle of billionaire elites who control steel, mining and chemical interests, particularly in eastern Ukraine. The CSMonitor notes: “The oligarchs have benefited for two decades from close relations with government officials, who have at times turned a blind eye to their activities in exchange for support. At other times, politicians have enabled their oligarch supporters to get richer through key government appointments and a lack of transparency in government contracts.”
Several oligarchs are Party of Regions members, have seats in Ukraine’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada) or control members of parliament — including Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. While they stand to benefit from a billion-euro loans and custom union with Russia, Ukraine’s economic crisis could also put their fortunes at risk. Akhmetov continues to support President Yanukovych but has spoken out against police violence. Other oligarchs have been openly pro-European or even supported the Euromaidan protests.
3. Security Service, including the “Berkut” unit
Berkut riot police shoot rubber bullets toward anti-government protesters on Independence Square on Feb. 19, 2014 (Brandan Hoffman/Getty Images)
Ukraine’s security forces have clashed repeatedly with protesters while trying to regain control of central Kyiv. The Berkut (“golden eagle”) is a rapid response unit that’s deployed to suppress social and political protests. It has shown unnecessary brutality and aggression against demonstrators. Ukraine’s police — garbed in full riot gear and backed by armored personnel-carriers — use batons, water cannons, stun grenades, and firearms, including automatic weapons. On Feb. 19, a truce was announced just hours after the Security Service greenlighted the use of live ammunition and the president replaced Ukraine's army chief. It was broken the next day by unprecedented violence, leaving at least 70 protesters and 3 police officers dead.
In response, Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution “making it illegal for armed security forces to be in Independence Square or indeed for the police to be armed at all,” reported The Guardian. A Kyiv-based analyst notes, “But it is not obvious that riot police will obey parliament recommendations and get confined to their barracks as of now.”
4. “Titushkos” vigilantes
"Tituskos" are pro-government vigilantes named after Vadym Titushko. (YouTube)
“Titushkos” are aggressive pro-government vigilantes thought to be hired from eastern and central Ukraine and bussed into Kyiv to stir trouble at protests. They are named after Vadym Titushko, a young man filmed attacking journalists at a pro-government rally in Kyiv last year. He was later prosecuted. The BBC reported, “There have been numerous reports accusing them of assaulting demonstrators and journalists alike, often with apparent police connivance. As anti-government protests spread eastwards in late January, "titushkos" were reportedly brought inside regional administration offices in the cities of Zaporizhzhya and Dnipropetrovsk, and were then released to assault the demonstrators outside.”
5. Oplot (“Stronghold”)
The Oplot group, based in Kharkiv, describes itself as "the first fight club in Ukraine." (YouTube)
Oplot, meaning “Stronghold” in Russian, is a pro-government group of fighters from a mixed martial arts club in the eastern city of Kharkiv. It’s led by Yevhen Zhilin, a retired police captain who “champions the Soviet Union's military legacy.” The BBC noted: Oplot is “opposed to the anti-government protests and say they have visited Kiev to ‘help police restore order’.... The group's exploits include the blocking of activists from Auto-Maidan, an anti-government movement which involves motorists who use their cars to pick up demonstrators, picket properties belonging to government officials and block streets, preventing police deployment to protest sites.” They have also been accused of kidnapping and torturing Auto-Maidan leader Dmytro Bulatov.
1. Anti-government activists
Pro-European activists protest outside the president's office in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Sergei Supinsky AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of anti-government protesters remain camped out in central Kyiv to oppose Ukraine’s partnership with Russia and to call for early elections, which the president and opposition leaders agreed to in a tentative deal on Friday.
The once-peaceful demonstration grew into full scale clashes between police in riot gear and protesters armed with stones, fireworks, Molotov cocktails, and the occasional firearm. The activists themselves are a varied group, including organized partisan and nonpartisan activists, many ordinary residents as well as extremist elements.
“The violence has also given rise to some small yet influential radical groups that have spearheaded much of the anti-regime fighting. But the police actions have also radicalized many “ordinary” protesters, who see the armed, masked fighters on Maidan as their legitimate defenders from marauding security forces,” according to GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk.
2. Opposition lawmakers
President Yanukovych and opposition leaders have announced an agreement to end the violence and Ukraine’s protracted crisis. The politicians, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko, and Oleh Tyahnybok, head the three next largest parties after the Party of Region. They’ve demanded President Yanukovych’s resignation and are his most likely challengers in the 2015 presidential elections.
Foreign Affairs noted there is a gulf between the opposition leaders and protesters: “And this rift goes back to the first days of the pro-European demonstrations, when nonpartisan protesters gathered on the Maidan while the opposition parties stood on the nearby European Square. Many civic activists accused the opposition leaders of trying to usurp the protests for their own political gain and of having no strategy.” Concerns remain over whether the opposition leaders can control the protesters.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, All-Ukrainian Union Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”)
Ukraine opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Feb. 17, 2014 in Berlin, Germany.(Jochen Zick-Pool/Getty Images)
Yatsenyuk has been the de facto head of Ukraine’s second largest political party, Fatherland (“All-Ukrainian Union Batkivshchyna”). Parliament just voted to release the party's symbolic leader — Ukraine's former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — from jail.
“Fatherland won the support of the west and center of Ukraine, the areas that traditionally back the Orange Revolution and are most hostile to Yanukovych,” reported Foreign Affairs. Yatsenyuk is one of the most qualified candidates to challenge Yanukovych and ran for the presidency in 2010. A lawyer and an economist, Yatsenyuk has vast political experience as a former foreign minister, finance minister, speaker of parliament, and deputy governor of Ukraine’s central bank. He was offered the post of prime minister, which he rejected via tweet: "We're finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you."
Vitaly Klitschko, Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR)
Vitaly Klitschko, leader of the Ukrainian opposition UDAR (Punch) party, announced in October that he would run for president. (AFP/Getty Images)
Klitschko’s nickname is Dr. Ironfist — fitting as he’s a former world heavyweight boxing champion with a PhD in sports science. He’s “arguably the most prominent figurehead” of the protests and heads the pro-EU party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms.
UDAR (meaning “punch”) runs on an anticorruption platform and is Ukraine’s third largest party in parliament. The Washington Post wrote: “Klitschko has no association with the Orange Revolution or the unpopular governments that followed it, but he is a ferocious critic of Yanukovych. As early as September, Klitschko was challenging Yanukovych to resign if he wouldn’t sign the agreement with the EU. He has declined the post of deputy prime minister.” As a side note, his brother Wladimir Klitschko — also a heavyweight boxer — is engaged to American actress Hayden Panettiere. She tweeted a message of support.
Oleh Tyahnybok, Svoboda (“Freedom”)
Leader of Ukrainian right-wing party Svoboda (Freedom) Oleh Tyahnybok in Lviv on Oct. 25, 2012. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/Getty Images)
Tyahnybok leads the far-right nationalist party Svoboda (“Freedom”), the fourth largest in Ukraine. Unlike Yatsenyuk and Klitschko, Tyahnybok was not offered a government post. Svoboda — which promotes traditional Ukrainian culture and values and rejects foreign influence — supports the EU agreement. “But its more radical views fit uneasily with its supposedly pro-European stance and are a source of concern for many observers in Ukraine and abroad,” wrote Foreign Affairs. Svoboda is considered to be a fascist organization by some and Tyahnybok was expelled from parliament in 2004 for anti-semitic remarks.
Yulia Tymoshenko, All-Ukrainian Union Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”)
Ukraine's parliament just voted to release Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. On Oct. 11, 2011, she was sentenced to seven years in jail for abusing her powers in a 2009 gas deal with Russia. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is the symbolic leader of the Fatherland party and President Yanukovych’s arch political rival. Parliament just voted to release her from a 7 year sentence on corruption charges — which may allow her to play more of a direct role in Ukraine's new political landscape. In 2011, the “icon of the Orange Revolution” was convicted on “abuse of office” charges that many consider to be politically motivated. Although she's been in jail and suffers from poor health, current president Yanukovych still considers her a threat. The EU’s demand for her release as a condition of signing the trade agreement is one of the reasons Yanukovych rejected the deal.
3. Pravy Sektor (“Right Sector”)
Members of the Right Sector sit at a barricade at the Dynamo Kiev stadium in central Kiev on Feb. 21, 2014. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images)
The Right Sector is a militant group of young men drawn from ultra-nationalist and neo-fascist groups, including the Svoboda party, Trident, Patriot of Ukraine and others. They are said to be a “key factor behind the recent violence.” One member told the BBC that the group — which has no leaders or formal membership — is not affiliated with the Euromaidan movement. They often wear masks and helmets and carry sticks or iron bars during spontaneous confrontations with police. Most do not support joining the EU, but rather view the current situation as an opportunity "to destroy the state skeleton." The Guardian noted that the neo-fascist group presents a real political concern: “They will be among the undisputable leaders of the more radical part of the movement who will not be satisfied with a narrow rearrangement of powers as demanded by the opposition.”
4. Common Cause
BBC News interviews Olexsandr Danylyuk, leader of protest group "Common Cause." (YouTube)
Common Cause — led by lawyer and activist Oleksandr Danylyuk — is “best known for capturing several key government offices in Kyiv, such as the ministries of justice, agriculture, and energy.” Common Cause supports early parliamentary and presidential elections. The BBC said, “More moderate opposition leaders have accused Mr. Danylyuk and his movement of staging ‘provocations’ which can undermine talks with the government and serve as a pretext for imposing martial law.”
5. Football clubs
The BBC reported: “As mass rallies evolved into violent clashes across Ukraine in late January, many football fan groups announced their support for the anti-government demonstrations and took to the streets to protect the protesters from attacks by vigilantes. Hardcore football fans in Ukraine, known as "ultras," often have far-right leanings and a historically antagonistic relationship with police. The first group to announce its intention to protect Kiev residents from "titushkos" was the fan club of Dynamo Kiev FC on 21 January…. Fans in eastern and central regions, which are known to be sceptical about the anti-government rallies, quickly followed suit. Fan groups of at least 16 clubs have announced their support for anti-government protests and pledged to protect the demonstrators.”
OTHER ACTORS, UKRAINE
1. Parliament of Ukraine (“Verkhovna Rada”)
Ukraine's parliament on Friday voted to return the ex-Soviet country to its 2004 constitution. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukraine’s parliament, dominated by President Yukanovych supporters, has been criticized for failing to take decisive measures to end the political crisis. But Friday, it reversed course and voted to limit presidential powers and to approve unconditional amnesty for protesters. The day before, following a bloody crackdown on protesters during a de facto state of emergency, parliament at long last “threw President Yanukovych under the bus” by approving a resolution to remove military and police from Euromaidan and to end the use of firearms against protesters. According to the Washington Post, this measure reduces President Yukanovych’s ability to call on the military to intervene, places himself outside the democratic process if he does, and represents a weakening of support from within his own party.
2. Ukrainian media
Prominent Ukrainian journalists describe what Euromaidan means to them. (YouTube)
“Several local news outlets — including Ukraine's Espreso TV — are live streaming the swelling crowds, large-scale fires, and numerous explosions at the opposition camps,” wrote Mother Jones. In April 2013, several of Ukraine’s top journalists developed Hromadske.tv, a civic news channel that began broadcasting in November and has been documenting the demonstration. Both Ukrainian and foreign journalists covering the protests have been assaulted, mostly by police, and at least one has died.
3. Ukrainian Olympic athletes
On Feb. 20, Ukrainian skiier Bogdana Matsotska announced she was withdrawing from the 2014 Winter Games. (Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty Images)
Several Ukrainian athletes have publicly withdrawn from the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia in response to the violence in Ukraine. Some had asked to be allowed to wear black armbands but were barred by the International Olympic Committee. Many simply left the Games. The coach of skier Bogdana Matsotska said through her coach (and father): “In solidarity with the fighters on the barricades ... and as a protest against the criminal actions made towards the protesters, the irresponsibility of the president and his lackey government, we refuse further performance at the Olympic Games in Sochi 2014.” Several more athletes are expected to withdraw.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych shake hands in Moscow on Dec. 17, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin has exerted heavy pressure on Ukraine to reject closer integration with the EU in favor of a "Eurasian Union" — sweetened by a $15 billion aid package from Russia and drastic reduction of gas prices. GlobalPost earlier outlined several reasons why Russia is so politically and economically invested in Ukraine:
1. Russia has designs on Ukraine’s natural gas pipelines
2. Russia considers Ukraine a 'mini me' (i.e., a political vassalage of Moscow)
3. Without Ukraine, there is no Eurasian Union
4. Russia believes Russian and Ukrainian history is inextricably linked
5. Russia considers Ukraine within its sphere of influence
6. Lots of Ukrainians still speak Russian
7. Russia feels threatened by revolutions
Russia has condemned the protests as “foreign-backed terrorism” and offered “assistance” to Ukraine’s government to suppress the unrest. “As fierce urban fighting continued in central Kyiv Thursday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an unusually strong statement that Russia would continue its strategic cooperation with Ukraine so long as the authorities remain ‘legitimate and effective,’” reported GlobalPost Senior Correspondent Dan Peleschuk.
2. Germany, Poland, France
Ukrainian opposition leaders, the Ukrainian president and the German and Polish foreign ministers on Feb. 21 in Kiev. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
On Feb. 20, the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France visited Ukraine to negotiate a deal between Ukraine’s government and the opposition. After all-night talks, the EU foreign representatives helped mediate an agreement that restores the 2004 Constitution (diminishing the head of state’s authority) and provides for early presidential elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the delegation's departure, saying, "we agreed to continue to do everything so there is no further escalation of violence in Ukraine."
3. European Union
The European Union on Thursday agreed to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on Ukrainians with "blood on their hands", said Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino. (AFP/Getty Images)
On Feb. 20, the European Union called an "extraordinary meeting” of its 28 member countries to address the escalating violence in Ukraine. The Guardian reported that, “At an extraordinary foreign affairs council chaired by high representative Catherine Ashton, EU foreign ministers agreed to issue asset freezes and travel bans against individuals deemed responsible for violence and excessive force.”
4. United States
US President Barack Obama condemned violence against protesters in Kyiv while attending a summit in Mexico on Feb. 19. (YouTube)
On Feb. 18, “the US Department of State released an emergency message warning about escalating violence and potential "extraordinary measures" by the Ukrainian Security Services,” reported Mother Jones. The White House has stated: “We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people.” On Feb. 19, Obama warned that “there will be consequences” from the international community if Ukraine’s government resorts to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters.