Ukraine smolders as Yanukovych fights for power, protester buried

Political rally in Lviv, Ukraine
Political rally in Lviv, Ukraine / James Picht

Photo: Political rally in Lviv, Ukraine / James Picht

By James Picht

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2014 – Mikhail Zhiznevsky, one of three protesters killed near Ukraine’s parliament building in Kyiv on Wednesday, was laid to rest today. His coffin was carried from St. Michael’s cathedral through the streets of Kyiv, while thousands of protesters sang the national anthem and shouted “Hero!”

The political situation in Ukraine has grown increasingly tense over the last two months, but the situation has been building for at least two years, since the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The spark for the most recent protests was the sudden decision by President Viktor Yanukovych on November 21 to drop an agreement to strengthen Ukraine’s ties with the European Union, and instead to strengthen ties with Russia’s Eurasian Union.

Yanukovych’s decision was a shock to Ukrainians who want stronger ties with the West. Protests began almost immediately on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and have continued sporadically since then. The protests were peaceful, but Ukraine’s European Pravda newspaper printed documents that show that the State Security Service began planning a violent counter-response three days after the protests began. The Defense Ministry deployed men and vehicles to Kyiv’s streets in early December.

According to polls, more than half of Ukraine’s citizens favor closer ties with the West, especially in the western part of the country, where partisans in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) fought the Soviet Union until 1949, with isolated resistance continuing until 1956. Throughout the Soviet era, western Ukraine was the heart of Ukrainian nationalism, and resentment towards Russia continues to burn there.

Protests have spread beyond western Ukraine into the Russified east. In the west, protesters on Friday occupied buildings in Lviv, Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivsk, as well as in Kyiv. In the east, protestors massed in front of government buildings in Zaporizhzhya, Sumy, and Dnipropetrovs’k. Protestors set up barricades in Chernihiv, to the north of Kyiv, and in Odessa, a major city on the Black Sea. These are the most extensive protests in Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Kyiv, protests have centered at the parliament building and on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in the city’s heart. Reporter Andriy Kulykov reported live the storming of Ukrainian House on Saturday, which left the building’s windows broken and the street strewn with debris.

In an attempt to defuse the protests, President Yanukovych has offered to appoint opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister. Yatsenyuk rejected the offer, demanding that new elections be held. The opposition also demands that jailed opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko be released. Tymoshenko was convicted in October 2011 of abuse of power and embezzlement. International human rights organizations believe that her trial was politically motivated. Her captivity has been a primary impediment to the enactment of an EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with Ukraine.

The opposition is likely to see Yanukovych’s offer to Yatsenyuk as a sign of weakness. If Yatsenyuk were to accept, the government would hope to see the protests fade, leaving Yanukovych in power. If the protests were to be put on hold while the opposition is bogged down in protracted negotiations with the government, Yatsenyuk’s entry into the government would turn out to be a defeat for the opposition.

Yatsenyuk’s decision to reject the prime-minister post shows that the opposition is determined to play hard-ball with the government. The events of this weekend demonstrate that the opposition is highly motivated and persistent. They do not want to join Yanukovych in forming a new government; they want him gone. They correctly see that if Yatsenyuk were to enter the government, the protests would go to committee and eventually disappear. The opposition will ratchet up the pressure on Yanukovych. How far they are willing to go to unseat the president, and how far he is willing to go to stay in power, will determine whether Ukraine continues to smolder or bursts into flame.

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