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Ukraine's Black Saturday

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Yesterday was Black Friday in the west – people out shopping; in Ukraine, today will be remembered as Black Saturday – people running for their lives. Have the Ukrainians been shopped by the Europeans?

Andrey Chernikov
30 November 2013

Ukraine is in shock. Shocked by its President. Shocked by the de facto rejection of European integration. Shocked by the brutal suppression of a peaceful protest. Shocked by the opposition finding itself impotent, unable either to suggest or realise any plan of action.

In one awful night, the prospect of European integration has been relegated to a long-term dream; and presidential disintegration has been promoted to a short-term reality.

Tough talking

Since 2007, Ukraine has been engaged in a process of preparing an Association Agreement with the EU. The active phase of negotiations took place over the last three years. These were a tough process: Ukrainian negotiators argued out every point in order to defend the country’s interests, but real progress was made, and in 2012, the text of the Agreement was initialled; all that remained was to pass a few laws in parliament and to sign the agreement in Vilnius.

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Over 100,000 Ukranian citizens took to Maidan Square to protest against their President's rejection of European integration. On Saturday 30 November these protests were brutally shut down by riot police. Photo (cc) Ivan Bandura

The EU, however, and in particular ex-presidents Pat Cox and Aleksander Kwaśniewski were very keen to bring the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko to the foreground. They lobbied hard to secure either her release from prison, or, at the very least, a safe passage to Germany for hospital treatment. The result of all this was that the issue of Tymoshenko overshadowed much of the Agreement (even though the text does not contain one sentence on the issue of political prisoners). Most probably, this was Europe’s big mistake. It is no big secret that Tymoshenko is Yanukovych’s main political enemy; Yanukovych had no intention of releasing her from prison, and subjecting himself to unnecessary political competition.

Yanukovych waited until the very last moment before presenting the EU with a demand for 160 billion euro

A surprising figure

Having decided against the Association Agreement, Yanukovych waited until the very last moment before presenting the EU with a demand for 160 billion euro, supposedly in compensation for losses from the new trading environment. This absurd figure surprised the EU  – it surprised everyone; and its origins are something of a mystery. It is apparently referenced in a 2012 study by Ukrainian and Russian economists, but no-one actually knew of this study, and the figure has since been disputed by other economists. The most amusing thing is that the EU found out about it only on the day that Yanukovych was due to fly in to Vilnius; a diplomatic flourish unheard of even for Ukraine.

Yanukovych has complained to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he was being pressured by Putin. Yet, while he has decided not to sign the Association Agreement, he has also said that he does not want to enter into a customs union with Russia. It is unclear exactly how Putin pressured him.

Maidan Square

Without the overwhelming support of the electorate, the Ukrainian Opposition was unable to react to the events in a timely or effective way. The call to occupy the squares of Ukraine’s largest cities came not from the opposition, but from journalists and activists. The Maidan public rejected party political symbolism. Even after more than 100,000 people came to the Square, the opposition was in no position to lead them. It might have been able to lead if it had some kind of plan of action, but it had no such plan.

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Special police units waded into the crowds early Saturday morning to disperse the protest with a level of force never before seen in Ukraine's history. Photo (cc) Ivan Bandura

Interesting, of course, how an impeached President might be able to sign anything

Last night, which was when it became clear that Yanukovych had refused to sign the Association Agreement, Ukraine’s Opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok announced their own 'action plan': it involved the dissolution of parliament, resignation of the government, and impeachment of the president 'for national treason.' At the same time, they also demanded that Yanukovych sign the Association Agreement by 15 March. Interesting, of course, how an impeached President might be able to sign anything. Most importantly, these leaders were unable to tell the many-thousand-strong Maidan what it was to do next: was it to stay or go home?

The people, in the end, decided to stay… at least until 4.30am this morning, which was when special police units waded into the crowds, wielding batons and causing great damage. Never before in the history of Ukraine has a protest been dispersed with such force, cruelty or blood. For the authorities, it seems, it was not enough simply to disperse the protest. The savagery of the action suggests that an order had been issued to teach everyone a lesson.

Mikhailovsky monastery

Since this morning, around 200 young men and women have been hiding in the courtyard of the Mikhailovsky monastery, some 1.5 km from the Maidan Square. Frightened and freezing, they were taken in by the monks who have given them refuge. The students have barricaded themselves in the monastery, and have been visited by MPs and other Kyivians. The young activists assert that they want 'to stick it out to the end,' but they don’t quite know what the end means; and nobody, unfortunately, can tell them.

Fleeing the brutality of the police, around 200 young men and women have taken refuge in the courtyard of the Mikhailovsky monastery, close to Maidan Sqaure.

The Opposition has called for a mass demonstration on Sunday, but initially forgot to say where it was to be held. Only a while later did it become clear that the venue would be Taras Shevchenko Park.

Of course, after such an horrific turn of events, the question of Opposition aims and expectations are of a somewhat secondary nature. Talk of Association Agreeements and the EU is also now inappropriate. A much more serious problem has emerged: the fact that the President of Ukraine has taken leave of his senses.

 

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