This is Ukraine.
It’s in the fairly unique position of being sandwiched between Russia and the European Union.
Ukraine’s politics have a tug-of-war between pro-Europe and pro-Russia ideologies
This is a map of the 2012 Ukrainian parliamentary elections.
Blue = Areas won by the relatively pro-Russia “Party of the Regions,” headed by President Viktor Yanukovych.
Pink = Areas won by the Fatherland Party, a faction favoring “European values,” which is led by jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Meet Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s President
He’s been president since 2010. Before that, he served as Ukraine’s Prime Minister.
Ukraine scholar Yaroslav Pylynski explains his appeal: “For the millions of his supporters he is the Leader, he is the incarnation of their dreams, he is their hero. And his opponents are poor failures that should be deceived and used.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government is at risk of financial default
Quartz has a good explanation of this:
“Credit-default swaps—a form of insurance that pays out if a bond defaults—blew up for Ukrainian government bonds recently, with spreads that now suggest the country is twice as likely to default as Greece. Only Venezuela and Argentina are considered riskier borrowers, according to this measure.”
And many people see integration with the EU as a way to improve Ukraine’s economy
Here, GDP per capita in 2012. Ukraine has one of the lowest rates in Europe.
Says Ukraine expert Lyudmyla Pavlyuk, “general well-being, not to mention prosperity, is only possible for an exclusive group of people in Ukraine. Ukrainians no longer experience “distance” between themselves and the Ukrainian elite — it is an abyss.”
But Russia doesn’t want that to happen.
Russia fears that a Ukraine-EU agreement would lead to a flood of EU products
These EU-created goods would be more affordable than Russian-built ones, thus damaging Russia’s economy.
An EU agreement would also require reforms in Ukraine
Which both Russia and the Yanukovych government say would damage joint Ukrainian-Russian business ventures.
Many advocates of closer EU-Ukraine ties want reform that will make Ukraine more open and transparent
As BBC News notes, “supporters say closer ties with the EU could make the economy more open, transparent and prosperous, with greater competition and protection for investors.”
One reform required by the EU: freeing leading political prisoners like opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko
This is Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister and the leader of the country’s largest opposition party (the “Fatherland” party, shown in pink in the above map).
In 2011, she faced a politically-charged trial and has been imprisoned since.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, specifically cited the need for Yulia Tymoshenko’s release as a precondition for closer Ukraine-EU relations:
“Signing and ratifying the Association Agreement and the DCFTA will not be possible unless Ukraine urgently addresses this stark deterioration of democracy and the rule of law. In the immediate term, this applies to the above cases of selective justice and politically motivated prosecution. Solutions need to be found, enabling Ms. [former Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko, Mr. [former Interior Minister Yuriy] Lutsenko and others to regain their freedom and fully participate in political life.”
In November, Ukraine’s government opted not to free Yulia Tymoshenko…
Here, Tymoshenko shows bruises she claims were given to her by prison staff.
… which killed the proposed trade agreements with the EU
Russia then offered a major economic package, including a bailout Ukraine’s government
The package includes discounts on Russian gas, and a purchase of $15 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds.
After the EU deal collapsed in November, protesters came out in force
The protests are not fundamentally about the EU trade deal failing, but the failure has served as a catalyzing event.
The protest is called “Euromaidan”
That’s Euro- as in ‘Europe,’ and -maidan, which is a term meaning ‘town square.’
So, while there are many reasons why people are protesting, there are a few major causes sustaining the massive protests:
1. Anger about rejecting Europe and the European Union
This was the catalyzing event of the protests.
This includes anger about the anti-protest laws passed on January 16th
These laws criminalized many of the opposition’s tactics.
… which, among other penalties, created a two-year jail term for defamation spread through social media
The protesters tend to be from a younger, more online-savvy generation than has previously participated in Ukraine’s politics.
… and banned protesters from wearing helmets
Which has led many protesters to wear metal pots on their heads instead.
3. Dislike of Yanukovych and Ukraine’s anti-democractic strains
4. Protesters are thought to have momentum on their side
Yanukovych’s presidency is at risk, which is why he’s now offered leading government posts to two major opposition leaders.
The opposition wants early elections and a chance to totally change the government and has not accepted the regime’s offer.