2004 was Ukraine’s Orange Revolution- which saw protests arising from elections which were allegedly rigged in favour of Victor Yanukovych. After tense scenes in Kiev, Victor Yushchenko was inaugurated as President. The irony was that 2010 saw Yanukovych become Yushchenko’s successor as President.
November 2013 once again, in a throwback to 2004, sees protests in Ukraine over the non-signing of a treaty which would have resulted in closer Ukraine and EU trade ties. In diplomacy reminiscent of the Cold War, Kiev preferred a policy of not angering Russia, who still sees the Ukraine and that Eastern European belt of countries as within their ‘sphere of influence’. Moscow has remained quiet over the protests, but undoubtedly is quite pleased that the current administration is as loyal as its predecessors.
Former Prime Minister and iconic heroine of the Orange Revolution Yulia Timoshenko was arrested and charged several years ago with abuse of office, in a trial that perceived by many commentators as being politically motivated. From her prison cell, in speeches, audiences, hunger strikes and other similar ways, she continues to be the colourful voice of freedom for Ukraine, and still calls upon her supporters to demonstrate against the current government. The current Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, was only marginally luckier: he survived a recent no confidence vote in Parliament, and was stinging in his criticism of the protesters.
Those protesters in recent weeks have made their way right up to the government buildings and ministerial offices in Kiev, and were chanting in Independence Square (the focal point of the 2004 revolution). They were met by an aggressive response by riot police, which only served to inflame the opposition. Matters went so far as to result in a statue of Lenin in Kiev being toppled, to great cheers from the opposition.
Although another painful and tense time for Ukraine, it is proof that change has come to parts of Eastern Europe.
In the Cold War, the USSR exerted its influence over Ukraine and neighbouring countries with an iron fist, crushing dissidents and protests. 2013 sees the voice of opposition and protest being heard and loud and vocally right outside the President’s palace. Although being met by riot police and ruthless government opposition, the protesters are still gathering, still demonstrating. They are not being met with violence or oppression as in previous years, and know that they can gather in Kiev to let their voice be heard without fear. Democracy is now alive and thriving in a country where authoritarian repression formally held sway. Although an emerging and troubled democracy, democratic freedoms and principles are there- hopefully to stay.
Despite the positives of such democratic values, and in standing up for freedom of speech and expression, this sits uncomfortably with Ukraine’s leaders. The administration is keen not to provoke or anger Russia, and still fears the power of the Kremlin.
In a probable demonstration of the latter, it was very recently announced that Russia had agreed to buy up to $15bn of Ukrainian government bonds, and to drastically reduce the price of Russian oil. This agreement will protect the stability of the nearly bankrupt Ukrainian economy, according to the troubled Prime Minister- but critics want to know what is being given to Russia in return. This agreement is a blow to European economists and politicians, who were eager to encourage greater cooperation and ties with Ukraine. Indeed the EU remained open to further talks throughout the protests. Despite the people wanting European openness and freedoms, the Russian bear still remains a powerful presence for Ukrainian leaders. Caught between an angry Ukrainian people and a disapproving Moscow, Yanukovych chose to appease Moscow.
Yanukovych argued that the previous EU deal did not provide adequate support or compensation for Ukraine’s faltering economy. The President also cited trade losses with Russia if the EU deal was signed- whilst failing to mention Russian plans for a customs union, similar to the EU if many of the former Soviet satellite states.
Opposition leaders, critics and protesters alike will be keen to show their opposition to closer ties to Russia, and turning away from the EU. The unsettled situation in Ukraine continues, and no doubt will unfold further amidst these latest developments. Amidst such protests and politics, the spirit of freedom and democracy from the Orange Revolution carries on.
Churches in Kiev will be preaching the Christmas story in coming weeks. As they do, it must be recalled that Jesus Christ himself showed similar bravery in standing up and confronting a totalitarian Roman regime, by preaching Christianity and a new faith. Ukrainians should also remember the spirit of togetherness and humanity that is at the heart of the Christian faith, born out of an oppressive Roman regime.
Merry Christmas to all.