Ukraine, the largest country in Eastern Europe and a republic of the former USSR, has been on the boil for the past two months with a wave of anti-government demonstrations.
Tensions began brewing since the Ukrainian government announced on 21 November, 2013, that it was not signing a landmark trade deal with the European Union (EU) as expected in December, favouring stronger ties with Russia instead. The deal, which was to be signed at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, and was the result of years of negotiations, was seen as the first step towards Ukraine eventually joining the EU. This U-turn triggered mass pro-EU rallies in the capital Kiev, with hundreds of Ukrainians gathering at Independence Square.
Demonstrators carrying flags of the European Union and Ukraine gather in Independence Square in Kiev – AFP
Many in Ukraine and the EU saw the decision to suspend the deal – and closer ties with the EU – as pressure from Russia, as Kiev became caught between the two giants. Russia has been urging Ukraine to join the customs union it has with Belarus and Kazakhstan, both former Soviet republics.
Within days, the protests in Kiev had intensified, with the number of demonstrators rising to over 100,000. Many Ukrainians began camping out, and barricades and cordons were put up in the capital. Independence Square, which has been the epicentre of the protests, began to be referred to as “EuroMaidan” (European Square) by pro-EU activists on social media. There were clashes with the police as well.
As the demonstrations began gathering pace, there were calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. Opposition leaders also began demanding early elections and that President Viktor Yanukovych stand down.
On 30 November, riot police took the first major action against the protesters in a violent clampdown that left several people injured. The use of batons and tear gas by the police has been reported. Dozens of anti-government demonstrators were also taken into custody.
Over the next few days the rallies continued, with numbers swelling to 300,000 and increasing the pressure on the government. Protesters also began turning out wearing helmets, gas masks and other protective gear after the violence of 30 November.
With such numbers, these demonstrations became the largest in the country since the Orange Revolution in 2004, which were a series of nationwide protests against fraudulent and corrupt elections.
On 8 December, protesters toppled a statue of Lenin in Kiev, and smashed it.
Anti-government protesters use a sledgehammer to destroy a statue of Russian communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin on December 8, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine – Getty Images
President Yanukovych’s claims that his government was not looking to sever all ties with the EU, and would work for a closer relationship with it did not mollify the protesters, making his position increasingly precarious. He offered to hold talks with all parties, including the opposition, to resolve the escalating political crisis. On 14 December, he sacked the mayor of Kiev over the 30 November violence against the protesters by the police.
Meanwhile, Kiev saw more rallies, this time by supporters of Yanukovych’s government. While a larger number of people in the western part of Ukraine want integration with the EU, the country’s south and east are more pro-Russia.
On 17 December, 2013, Russia and Ukraine announced that they would be signing a major deal under which Russia would buy $15 billion (£9.2 billion, €10.9 billion) worth of Ukrainian government bonds, which would help the economically struggling country. It would also slash the price of Russian gas sold to Ukraine by almost a third.
The opposition demanded an explanation from the government on the deal, which triggered more protests. Anti-government anger rose after activist and journalist Tetyana Chornovil was brutally beaten by unidentified assailants on 25 December. As clashes continued, a former minister and leading opposition figure, Yuriy Lutsenko, was also badly injured and placed in intensive care on 11 January, 2014.
On 17 January, the government passed tough new laws aimed at curbing the protests, including banning unauthorised tents in public areas. These anti-protest laws resulted in more clashes erupting across Kiev as thousands defied the protest ban and rioted. Over 19 and 20 January, Kiev descended into chaos as the clashes turned violent. The capital resembled a war zone as demonstrators threw petrol bombs and stones at riot police, and torched buses. The police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and – despite Ukraine being in the grip of winter, with temperatures plunging and snow on the streets – water cannon.
An anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during clashes with police in Kiev, Ukraine – Getty Images
22 January, Ukraine’s Day of National Unity, saw the first fatalities of the two-month long unrest, with two protesters dying of gunshot wounds, and a third found tortured and dead in a nearby forest. The next day, President Yanukovych and opposition leaders agreed to meet to negotiate terms, as demonstrators declared an eight-hour truce. Meanwhile, protests spread to other cities in Ukraine, mostly in the West, including Rivne and Lviv, among others.
The talks ended in a stalemate on 24 January, following which President Yanukovych offered sweeping concessions, including the top posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister to opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former boxer Vitali Klitschko respectively. But the opposition rejected them on 26 January. The same day, thousands of Ukrainians gathered to mourn Mikhail Zhiznevsky, one of the protesters who was shot dead during clashes, as there were reports that protests had spread to the Russian-speaking east of the country.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on 28 January in a bid to ease the deadly crisis, the same day that the Ukrainian Parliament voted to scrap the anti-protest laws that had aggravated the unrest. His and his cabinet’s resignation was accepted by the President.
The Ukrainian flag flutters as policemen block a street in Kiev, Ukraine – Getty Images
On 29 January, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a new amnesty law for demonstrators arrested during the unrest on the condition that protesters vacated the government building they have occupied in the last few weeks. The opposition has rejected this law.
The leaders on both sides of the unrest:
President Viktor Yanukovych
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov: resigned on 29 January
Pro-EU (the Opposition):
Vitali Klitschko: a former world heavyweight boxing champion, now heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (Udar, meaning “Punch”)
Oleh Tyahnybok: leader of the far-right Svoboday (“Freedom”) Party
Yulia Tymoshenko: former prime minister, currently in jail (from 2011) for abuse of power; President Yanukovych refused to allow her to go to Germany for medical treatment for her chronic back pain, a move largely seen as political revenge on the part of Yanukovych, who is Tymshenko’s rival. This issue was simmering before tensions flared on November 21
Arseniy Yatsenyuk: from the Fatherland party, close ally of Yulia Tymoshenko
Yuriy Lutsenko: former interior minister who was injured during the protests on 11 January