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The Significance of Pro-EU Demonstrations in Ukraine

4 MINS READDec 2, 2013 | 18:09 GMT
The Significance of Pro-EU Demonstrations in Ukraine
(SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian protesters in Kiev on Dec. 1.
Summary

In Ukraine, protesters continue to demonstrate Dec. 2 in favor of the country's EU integration, but the protests appear to be contained at the moment. Ukrainian parliament speaker Volodymyr Rybak said there is currently no need to declare a state of emergency. This follows large demonstrations throughout the weekend in Ukraine after the government's decision not to move forward with signing key agreements with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit as planned. The decision reflected the delicate balancing act between the European Union and Russia being pursued by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich. While the protests have caused short-term political and security disruptions, they will have to be sustained and joined by broader segments of society in order to have a significant and lasting impact on Ukraine's foreign policy orientation like the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005.

The largest demonstrations in the country have been held in Kiev, with reports that 100,000 to 300,000 people took to the streets Dec 1. Smaller demonstrations over the weekend also occurred in the western cities and pro-EU strongholds of Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, with protests of 30,000-40,000 and 3,000-10,000, respectively.

The crowds in Kiev were relatively small at around 10,000 people Nov. 29-30 in the immediate aftermath of the Eastern Partnership summit, but a security crackdown by police and Berkut special forces against protesters spurred greater numbers onto the streets. Some of the protesters clashed with police, leading to dozens of injuries and the storming and damaging of administration buildings in the city center.

The protests have already had some immediate political effects, as three members of parliament from the president's Party of Regions have said they would leave the ruling party, and there have been rumors (so far denied) that Yanukovich's chief of staff, Sergei Lavochkin, has resigned. The police chief of Kiev has also stepped down as result of the violence between security forces and demonstrators. Also, Ukrainian opposition leaders have called for the resignation of the government and a general strike to begin Dec. 2. A vote of confidence has been scheduled for Dec. 3.

So far it is unclear whether the protests will have a significant impact on the government's stance toward the European Union. The largest organizers of the protests have been the main opposition parties of Ukraine, including the Fatherland coalition, the UDAR party and the nationalist Svoboda party, which have also partnered with a coalition of civic activists. It is important to note that so far the largest cohort of the demonstrations have been younger, Western-oriented people. There have also been some middle-aged people and even a few instances of families on the streets, but generally the protesters are young, and the disturbances have been almost exclusively limited to young people. This is unlike the Orange Revolution, which brought out a broader segment of society, though certainly these are the largest demonstrations since the revolution.

It is just as important to note who is not protesting in large numbers: the working class and older generations. These people are more likely to work in industrial and other Russia-connected sectors and are more likely to be hesitant about or opposed to the issue of EU integration because of what Russia would have done had Ukraine moved forward with the EU agreements. Notably, the entire eastern industrialized part of the country, including cities such as Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk — Yanukovich's traditional support base — has seen negligible participation in the demonstrations.

Ukraine's Political Divide

Ukraine's Political Divide

This reflects the political and cultural polarization between western and eastern Ukraine and the difficulty for Yanukovich of ruling a split country. But it also raises the question of whether the mostly young demonstrators will be able to sustain their levels over the coming days and weeks. It is possible the government could decide to wait out the demonstrators before making any significant political concessions.

If the demonstrators are able to sustain large participation, the onus will be on Yanukovich to respond, whether via domestic personnel shifts or by initiating a new dialogue with the European Union and Russia. Further resignations or dismissals within the government can be expected in the coming days, perhaps even including high-level figures such as Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov. If the protests are sustained or even grow, this could threaten Yanukovich himself — though whether he chooses to leave for a planned trip to China on Dec. 3 will indicate the seriousness of the protests.

In the meantime, Ukrainian officials have already called for tripartite talks with the European Union and Russia on important economic and energy matters. There are several meetings planned with Russian officials this week, and a Ukrainian delegation is scheduled to travel to Brussels next week to resume talks with the European Union. However, the effectiveness of such talks will depend on how cooperative the European Union will be with Ukraine after having just been spurned by Kiev, with officials from countries such as Poland and Germany speaking out against the situation in the country. Therefore, the domestic political component will be important to watch, but so will Ukraine's moves regarding the European Union and Russia.

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