The Significance of Ukraine's Violent Protests

3 MINS READJan 21, 2014 | 20:16 GMT

Demonstrations turned violent over the weekend and in recent days in Ukraine, where protesters clashed with security forces in central Kiev. While the protests were some of the largest and most violent the country has seen since December, their true significance goes only so far as the political change that they create. And as of right now, the demonstrations do not appear to be enough to change the broader political and strategic paradigm in Ukraine.

Ukraine has seen constant protests over the past two months, ever since the government of President Viktor Yanukovich decided to freeze its negotiations over closer integration with the EU in November. While the demonstrations began as a pro-EU movement, they quickly attracted many different kinds of groups that were united only in their opposition to the government. These included established opposition groups like the Fatherland and UDAR [Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform] parties, but also ultra-nationalist and far-right groups.

It is the latter that was primarily active in clashes with police over the weekend. A group known as Right Sector, which consists mostly of young men with far-right views, is reportedly responsible for igniting some of the more violent clashes. However, such groups are not controlled or supported by the pro-EU opposition, and it is notable that leading opposition candidates such as Vitali Klitschko condemned the violence and referred to the group as "radical provocateurs."

Still, this does not mean that the opposition is siding with the security forces. Indeed, Klitschko has called for some of the protesters to organize into militia units in order to ensure order during the demonstrations. Klitschko and other opposition leaders have also maintained their demands from the start of the demonstrations that the government either sign the EU deals or resign and hold new elections.

While the government has expressed an interest in maintaining a dialogue with the opposition and a few minor political concessions and cosmetic changes to the government have been made, it is unlikely that Yanukovich will follow through with these larger demands. There are fundamental constraints to Ukraine's integration with the EU, most notably in the form of Ukraine's strategically important relationship with Russia. Furthermore, Yanukovich's Party of Regions has a comfortable majority in parliament and does not face a significant political threat in that sense. Both of these factors — combined with the inability of demonstrators to maintain their peak levels from December — make it unlikely that Yanukovich will give the meaningful concessions that the opposition and the protesters are calling for. 

However, as this weekend's events have shown, these protests can prove to be potentially disruptive from a security perspective even if they are unable to create political change. As a way to counter the threat of further violence in the protests, the government has this week given legal approval for security forces to be able to respond with less than lethal and/or lethal force. This raises the stakes of any further confrontations in the future, but is likely meant as a way to dissuade further violence rather than encourage their usage. In the meantime, officials from both the EU and Russia have called on restraint from both sides.

Still, demonstrations can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future. The government's challenge will be to make sure they don't significantly escalate in violence, but the broader strategic question of Ukraine's foreign policy orientation and the political cohesion of the government is not fundamentally at threat at this time, despite the ongoing protests.

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