Members of Parliament are throwing punches in session. Men in suits and ties climb tables, grip hair, and restrain in chokeholds. Speaker Volodymyr Rybak shouts, “Stop! What are you doing!” but his calls for law and order fall on deaf ears. This is the Ukrainian Parliament, circa March 19th, 2013.
This all too familiar scene, reported by BBC, broke out between President Viktor Yanukovich’s Regional Party and the nationalistic far-right group, Svoboda, after the Regional Party’s parliamentary leader gave a speech in Russian. Although similar violent brawls occurred in the Ukrainian Parliament in 2010 and 2012, they did not attract much media attention because they were accepted as fairly commonplace in the post-Soviet state’s politics. Nowadays, however, Ukraine resides in the international spotlight due to increasingly violent protests spurring from President Yanukovich’s refusal to sign agreements with the European Union. The protesters claim that joining forces with the European Union would benefit all of Ukraine’s citizens. While the youth point to notions of “freedom” and “global human rights,” older constituencies stress “economic security” and a “normal, European democracy,” according to the Washington Post.
Leading up to the formal agreement date, the European Union and Ukraine had been discussing possible economic and political deals. According to the New York Times, the agreements were part of the EU’s Association Agreements, which strengthen ties with certain countries and could eventually lead to countries like Ukraine entering the union. In February 2013, the EU gave Yanukovich a deadline to sign the agreement. It had originally been set for November, but due to the threat of Russian trade sanctions, Yanukovich refused to sign. His choice strengthened ties with Russia that have been prevalent for many decades now. But these are the same ties that many Ukrainian citizens would rather cut because of the corruption that they bring.
Immediately after Yanukovich announced his decision on November 21st, activists and journalists began urging people to protest on the streets and the web alike. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and popular Russian social media site VKontakte became crucial outlets for gaining exposure. On the first day of peaceful protests, an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people showed up to Kiev’s Independence Square, according to NEWSru.com. Two days later, the numbers rose to at least 50,000, lists the Moscow Times.
Protestors occupied City Hall, carrying EU flags and chanting, “Ukraine is Europe.” It wasn’t long before the riot police came in to end the protest using tear gas and truncheons. This, along with continued police brutality, has put protesters, journalists, and even medical help into hospitalized care. President Yanukovich has since turned to allies that have provided the country monetary aid in the past, such as Russia and China. On December 8th, the fed-up protesters toppled a statue of Lenin in Kiev—a symbolic attack on Russian power in Ukraine.
In January, well into a harsh Ukrainian winter, the protesters stood their ground outside of City Hall, the Trade Unions building, and in Independence Square. With feet of snow on the ground and sub-zero temperatures, the tent cities and protester-made barricades stood strong. Political speeches and musical performances on the stage in Independence Square continued almost 24/7. On January 22nd, police forces and the special unit Berkut—a military-style force sent in by Yanukovich—attempted to disperse the crowds still gathered on Grushevskogo Street to protest and occupy the Cabinet and Parliament houses. The demonstrators, wearing shields and helmets, threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police advances. The Berkut responded with tear gas, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. Amidst rubble and acrid smoke from burning cars, at least three identified victims were pronounced dead, according to a list compiled by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. Among them was 20 year-old Serhiy Nigoyan, an only child originally from Armenia. At the protests, Nigoyan had read a poem by Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko entitled “Caucasus.” A video of his performance can still be found on YouTube.
The deaths and injuries that this fight has brought are the sacrifices that come with any revolution—and it is, I think, a revolution. What’s more, the string of kidnappings and activist tortures associated with the Ukrainian revolution has made the conflict even more violent. On January 21st, Igor Lutsenko and Yuri Verbitsky, both activists heavily involved with the movement, came to Oktyabrsky Hospital to treat an eye injury Lutsenko obtained, but the activists were suddenly struck and tied up by a group of men disguised as civilians. The two men were dragged into a car and taken to an unknown neighboring village. The kidnappers beat and severely tortured both the men. Lutensko later said to the Human Rights Watch organization that he believed Verbitsky was more severely tortured because he was from Lviv, a prominent city on the Western side of Ukraine known for being extremely anti-Russian. Both men were unbound and left out in the Ukrainian winter. While Lutsenko was able to crawl to safety nearby and recount his story, Verbitsky was found the next day frozen and dead in a village in the Kiev District.
Similarly, activist Dmytro Bulatov—thought to be dead—was discovered severely hurt, crucified, with part of his ear and face cut off in a village near Kiev eight days after his kidnapping, reported The Guardian. Either Berkut officers or members of covert force created by the Ukrainian or Russian governments are the suspected perpetrators of such attacks.
Such horrific kidnappings demonstrate the rampant, high-power corruption of post-Sovietism that has existed for decades with little attention from the global community. Ukraine ranks 28th from the bottom as one of the most corrupt country among 177 profiled by Transparency International in 2013. From police officers accepting petty bribes from the rich to President Yanukovich’s eldest son Oleksandr doubling his fortune over one year, corruption pervades the Ukranian system. Although formal evidence has yet to be presented, there is much speculation that Oleksandr’s father’s presidency and his own sudden wealth are closely linked. Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the agreement was just the straw that broke the camel’s back after decades of deep-rooted corruption. In the blur of all these events, the protest has been deemed Euromaidan—#euromaidan if you’re tweeting it. Some have compared it to the French Revolution, deeming Yanukovich the Louis XVI of Ukraine. Others have compared it to the Orange Revolution led by Yulia Tymoshenko, who is currently imprisoned, against Yanukovich himself, labeling him once again the antagonist of this revolution.
In a way, Yanukovich’s decision has stimulated a popular reaction that should have happened long ago. It has unified the country’s citizens, as well as Ukrainian immigrants in other countries. Protesters over the age of 55 who are retired have come out to fight injustice because many of the youth who hold jobs are not able to, according to the Washington Post. All around the world, Ukrainians follow the events daily and support their fellow citizens—one of my friends from home set her profile picture to “Pray for Ukraine,” and my mother streams the events live every day. It’s not fighting out in the streets, but it unites us with those who are. This revolution now continues in its third month. I hope that this summer when I visit my parents’ homeland, I will be able to visit a Ukraine with political power that gives its citizens their voice.