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Four Things You Need to Know About the Ukraine Uprising

What sparked the protests? Will the country split? Who’s giving the security forces orders?

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

What set off the protests?

Protests in Kiev started in November after President Viktor Yanukovych renounced agreements with the European Union designed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe economically, politically and culturally – at the expense of Russia.

Public outrage then surged twice: at the end of November, after harsh police violence against demonstrators, and in mid-January, when Yanukovych supporters in parliament approved legislation that would significantly limit the right to demonstrate and freedom of expression.

Yanukovych then tried to reach a compromise with the opposition. He froze the implementation of the new legislation, fired his prime minister and asked opposition leaders to join the government. The opposition refused, claiming that without changes to the constitution limiting the president’s powers, joining the government would be a fig leaf, with power remaining in Yanukovych’s hands.

The recent wave of violence originally led to a compromise signed by opposition leaders and the president. The protesters agreed to leave a number of public buildings they had occupied in recent weeks, including Kiev’s city hall, in return for an amnesty for any alleged crimes. But the main protest camp in Maidan Square was not evacuated and, at the beginning of last week, a large group of protesters marched from there to parliament demanding that the constitution be changed.

The march was blocked by militias of Yanukovych supporters, and some demonstrators took control of nearby government buildings. At least one person was killed. In response, the police and militias used severe violence; attempts to clear the square led to more than 70 deaths over the week.

Who is the Ukrainian opposition?

The opposition is composed of a wide range of groups. Former President Viktor Yushchenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko have been top names linked to the opposition. Tymoshenko’s release from prison Saturday may mark the beginning of her path to the presidency, but the ideological split within the opposition may prevent her from drawing broad support.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the three largest opposition parties in parliament are also possible candidates. Also, other groups have taken part in the demonstrations such as extreme right-wing organizations, which led many of the battles with the police. The factor that unified the opposition was general disgust toward the Yanukovych regime, especially the corruption and the country’s ailing economy.

How will the events of recent days affect the unity of the country?

The city of Lviv in western Ukraine has been run for more than a week by Yanukovych’s opponents. A number of regions in the west announced even before his flight that they would secede. Many police in those areas said they would no longer follow orders to repress demonstrations; some even joined the protesters in Kiev.

Now that Yanukovych has fled, the situation has reversed. In the pro-Russian eastern part of the country – Yanukovych’s power base – leaders say they will not follow parliament’s decisions and are threatening to secede. Some observers see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hand in these threats. For now there seem to be two centers of power in Ukraine: Kiev and Kharkiv in the east.

Who is giving the security forces orders, and who are they following?

This seems to be the key question that can explain why Yanukovych fled. Last week, after the first day of bloodshed in Kiev, Yanukovych apparently decided to fire the army chief of staff because he did not send in forces to put down the protests. But even after the sacking, the troops stayed in their barracks and Yanukovych used the police, especially his supporters’ militias, to attack the protesters.

Since the compromise agreement was signed Friday afternoon, the police have also apparently withdrawn from Kiev’s streets, and it’s not clear whose orders the police are following. The police did not prevent demonstrators from taking over public buildings over the past two days, including the presidential palace.

Ukrainians of all kinds massed in Kiev's Independence Square.Credit: AFP
A protester stands in front of a poster of Yulia Tymoshenko, in central Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 22, 2014.Credit: AP

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