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Sizing up Ukraine's Euromaidan

Mass protests against President Yanukovych and his government are continuing in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine. Ivan Katchanovski assesses their size and the likely outcome.

Over the last few days, Ukrainian protesters have come out on to the streets to rail against their government’s failure to put its final signature on an agreement which would have led to closer integration with the EU. The response has been numerically impressive: preliminary estimates of crowd sizes country-wide run at a few hundred thousand. But there is some disagreement over the exact figures. 

An opposition video uses Google Earth maps to show protesters occupying some 40,000 square metres on Kyiv’s Independence Square and the main street, Khreshchatyk. If average density is calculated at more than two people per square metre, then peak numbers would have been at least 100,000 at the Kyiv demonstration on December 1st. These numbers are comparable with the scale of the demonstrations during the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’, when the crowds were protesting against the falsification of the election results in favour of the current president, Viktor Yanukovych.

This time around, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry played down the number of demonstrators, estimating the crowd at some 40,000. And opposition leaders and many leading Ukrainian and Western mass media outlets did the opposite, putting numbers in the several hundred thousand range, or in some cases, such as the New York Times and Inter, more than a million.

Both opposition and government estimates distorted the number of protestors for their political reasons. The turnout may have been around 100,000 at the December 1st protest. Photo CC Nessa Gnatoush.

Protests: the provinces

Media reports and telephone interviews with local residents indicate that mass anti-government protests took place in many of Western Ukraine’s regional centres, such as Lviv and Lutsk, as well as in the capital. Analysis of the same sources indicates that large numbers of people from Western Ukraine, specifically Galicia and Volhynia, travelled to Kyiv to join in the mass protests. Probably the largest group of protesters in the hundred thousand strong crowd at the December 1st demonstration in Independence Square included residents of Kyiv city and the Kyiv region, students and migrants from Western Ukraine.

In western Ukraine, militia commanders and government officials openly sided with the mass protests. 

Anti-government protests, where they happened, were much smaller in more populous cities in Eastern, Central (with the notable exception of Kyiv), and Southern Ukraine. The special police forces, which brutally dispersed the demonstrators, were predominantly from Eastern and Southern Ukraine; in Western Ukraine, however, militia commanders and government officials openly sided with the mass protests, stating that they would refuse to obey any orders from the Yanukovych government to suppress them. The demonstrations have emphasised regional political divisions, even though Ukrainians in all regions have very low levels of confidence in the police. 

Protests: for and against

Polls show similar divisions on the issue of support for EU integration. A November 2013 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology showed equal (38%) levels of support for membership of the EU and the Russia-led Customs Union. While the absolute majority of Western Ukrainians and a relative majority of residents of the Centre, which includes Kyiv, preferred EU membership, the majority of their counterparts in the East and the South preferred the Customs Union. The younger generation was much more likely to back EU membership and the older generation more in favour of the Customs Union, though the generational differences were less significant than the regional divide.    

Violence could spiral further if the Yanukovych government resorts to force or if the radicals do the same.

Protests: why and who

The mass protests started in response to Yanukovych’s refusal to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU in Vilnius, but it was the violent dispersal by special police forces of a few hundred protesters in a pro-EU sit-in that triggered the biggest protests. These events were subsequently overshadowed by radical nationalist opposition demonstrators’ violent attempts to seize the presidential headquarters, and their successful seizure of the Kyiv city administration building. Svoboda activist Oleksander Aronets ran a live online broadcast of the confrontation between demonstrators and special police forces near the presidential headquarters. Analysis of this and other evidence indicates that the violence was led by activists from radical nationalist organizations like Dmytro Korchyns'ky’s 'Bratstvo' (Brotherhood, religious and political organisation of Orthodox Christians), 'Tryzub' (Trident), and 'Svoboda' (Freedom, a Ukrainian nationalist party), neo-Nazi organisations, and football fans. Many of them, if not all, regard themselves to a greater or less extent as ideological successors to Stepan Bandera's Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, although Bratstvo leaders do also reportedly toe the government line.

The violence could spiral further if the Yanukovych government resorts to force or if the radicals do the same. This would intensify the violent conflict and growing regional divisions, leading possibly to the ultimate break up of Ukraine.

An Orthodox preist pleads for calm after a smoke bomb is thrown. Far-right elements reponsible for Sunday's violence threaten to destabilise the situation further. Photo CC Ivan Bundera.

Like its Orange predecessor, today’s protest movement will probably not manage to achieve fundamental revolutionary change in Ukraine.

Ukrainian media have largely become cheerleaders for the mass protests: web-based Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) openly changed its name to Europeiska Pravda (European Truth). These media outlets speculated that the violent attacks should be attributed to Bratstvo or unknown provocateurs. At the same time they suppressed evidence of radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups inciting their football fans to violence among the largely peaceful protests, and inflated anti-government numbers at the biggest rally on 1 December. The TV channel Inter, for example, is controlled by oligarch Dmitry Firtash, whose deputies deserted the Yanukovych Party of Regions. It claimed that there were more than one million protesters and published statements by opposition leaders, specifically Oleh Tyahnybok (head of Svoboda).

The way forward

The current protests are in many ways quite similar to the ‘Orange Revolution’ - in the use of the term ‘revolution’ or ‘euro-revolution’, for example. But, like its Orange predecessor, today’s protest movement will probably not manage to achieve fundamental revolutionary change in Ukraine, nor EU membership. In the unlikely event that the protests result in a change of heart for Yanukovych and he, or an opposition government, signs the Association Agreement, the prospects for Ukraine joining the European Union would still be dubious. This is because the Agreement refuses to recognise Ukraine’s potential right to join the EU. The key difference is that, as distinct from the peaceful ‘Orange Revolution,’ this time first the Yanukovych government, and then a radical wing of the opposition protesters, have resorted to violence. This development could set a potentially dangerous precedent for Ukrainian politics, which, unlike most other post-Soviet countries, such as Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, has so far managed to avoid violent internal conflict. 

About the author

Ivan Katchanovski teaches at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.

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