Violence in Ukraine affects global community

Emily DeShazer | The Collegian Volodymyr Chumachenko, assistant professor at University Archives in Special Collections, is from Odessa, Ukraine. According to Chumachenko, the situation might have been resolved had the government not reacted to the peaceful protests in November 2013 with violence.

Volodymyr Chumachenko, assistant professor at University Archives and Special Collections, said that when he first came to Kansas, he was struck by how much it reminded him of Ukraine. The prairie land and climate bear a striking resemblance to the region around Odessa, Chumachenko’s Ukrainian hometown, and even the agriculture is the same; Ukraine’s rich soil produces excellent wheat and sunflower crops.

It is here in Kansas that Chumachenko and other Ukrainians watch helplessly as corruption and violence rocks the foundation of their homeland.

“I was afraid of this, and it did not come as a surprise,” Artem Rudenko, assistant professor of physics from Kyiv, Ukraine, said. “I had the lowest expectation in the Ukrainian government, and had no faith in them whatsoever.”

The Crisis
The protests began when the Ukrainian government announced in November 2013 that it was abandoning a trade and political deal with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion deal with Russia. Ukraine has been independent of Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but in many ways remains a divided country. Eastern regions of the country tend to speak Russian and identify with mostly Soviet political and cultural heritage, while citizens living in the western half of the country speak primarily Ukrainian and favor the political ideology of Europe. Ukraine holds the natural gas pipelines that run from Russia to Europe, making it a strategic ally for both sides.

When Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych decided that the country would have a better ally in Russia than the EU, hundreds of people went to Independence Square, also known as Maidan, in the capital city of Kyiv to protest.

Chumachenko said the situation might have resolved itself if the government had changed its mind about the EU agreement, but instead, they reacted to the peaceful protest with violence.

Riot police raided the square on Nov. 30, 2013, making arrests, using tear gas and beating unarmed protestors in an attempt to drive them away. Instead, it had the opposite effect.

“Next day, there were several hundred thousand people in the center of the city,” Chumachenko said. “They demanded the resignation of the government and the independent investigation of the brutal actions of police. The president and the government did not react and refused to hold the minister of the interior accountable for police actions.”

People from all over Ukraine gathered in Kyiv and set up camp in Independence Square, determined to remain there until their demands for justice were met. The protestors refused to resort to violence, and for a time, there was a peaceful stalemate between them and the government.

Katie Price, 2013 K-State alumna, went to Kyiv after being employed by a nonprofit organization to teach English. Price asked for the organization not to be identified for security purposes.

Price said she visited Independence Square once in late December to see what was going on, and found the protest to be very peaceful. People had set up tents and offered free food and tea to passersby.

“When I was there, everything was orderly and clean,” she said in an email interview. “The people were open and friendly.”

Rudenko visited family in Kyiv for about a week at the end of December and the beginning of January. He, however, described the situation differently.

“When I was in Kyiv, even though it was peaceful at the time, the tension was in the air,” Rudenko said. “The main street of the city, Khreshchatyk, adjacent to the Independence Square, was covered by the barricades. And it was clear that the whole situation might get real bad – as it did.”

The Violence Worsens
On Jan. 16, Yanukovych signed a bill into law that banned unauthorized tents in public areas and made slandering government officials a criminal offense. Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcaster, reported that Germany, along with the rest of the EU, was growing increasingly concerned with the situation in Ukraine.

“This ‘law’ stripped the citizens of the country of their basic constitutional rights and aimed at suppressing any protest actions in the future,” Chumachenko said. “As a result, the political situation quickly deteriorated.”

By then, protestors had been occupying Independence Square for almost two months in the winter cold. Three days later, there were a series of violent clashes between protestors and police on Jan. 22. There are conflicting reports on the number of casualties; on Jan. 23, Laura Smith-Spark and Victoria Butenko of CNN reported that four deaths attributed to gunshot wounds by police, while BBC reported on Jan. 24 that two protestors were shot dead by police and another activist was found dead in the woods.

Nonlethal weapons, such as rubber bullets and water cannons, were also used against protestors. Protestors fought back, setting several police busses on fire. There were hundreds of injuries reported on both sides.

“There was a lot of reaction all over the country for this,” Rudenko said. “The situation was very tense for a while.”

People began to protest in other cities all over Ukraine, such as Lutsk and Sumy. The same Jan. 24 BBC article reported that on Jan. 23, activists began to seize government buildings in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Chernivtsi. They demanded the resignation of government officials they saw as corrupt.

On Jan. 28, Yanukovych accepted Ukraine Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s resignation, and then dismissed Azarov’s cabinet. According to a Jan. 28 New York Times article by Andrew Kramer, Azarov resigned just hours before a no-confidence vote by parliament would have stripped him of his powers anyway. Yanukovych also promised amnesty for the protestors who had been arrested, hoping to appease the protestors. BBC reported in an Feb. 17 article that protestors left many of the government buildings they had occupied by Feb. 16, as authorities released about 243 protestors they had arrested.

Chumachenko said the president was unwilling to discuss his own resignation, parliamentary elections, or any constitutional changes that would reduce his power.

“The real goal of the president and his faction was to suppress the protest at any cost,” Chumachenko said.

The truce ended on Feb.18 in the most violent clash of the three-month-long crisis. There are conflicting reports from various news sources, and no one is quite sure who started it, but at least 70 people died in clashes between protestors and police. Independence Square was transformed from a picturesque city center to a scene of smoldering debris.

“The terrifying scenes of the massacre spread with lightning speed over the Internet and drew media attention all over the world,” Chumachenko said.

The governments of the world stepped in. The U.S. and the EU warned Yanukovich not to declare a state of emergency, which would bring in more troops and make the situation even worse, the New York Times reported in an Feb. 20 article by Andrew Higgins and Kramer.

Uncertain Future
At the moment, two different factions are claiming control of Ukraine. The parliament has appointed an interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, until new elections can be held in May. Yanukovich refuses to acknowledge being ousted, and has referred to the parliament’s actions as a “coup,” according to Deutsche Welle.

According to a Feb. 26 CNN article by Laura Smith-Spark, Phil Black and Frederik Pleitgen, a warrant has been issued for Yanukovich’s arrest on charges of “mass killings.” According to the article, while Yanukovich is believed to still be in the country. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Though Kyiv has settled down, demonstrations continue across the country – especially in the southern region of Crimea, where pro and anti-Russian demonstrators are facing off in the city of Simferopol, Ukraine. According to the Feb. 26 CNN article, the tension has also taken a toll on the port city of Sevastopol, Ukraine where a Russian naval base is located. On Feb. 26, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military exercises in Simferopol. While Russian officials have not formally said it is in response to the tension in Ukraine, the timing of the exercises suggests it is.

Many agree that Ukraine needs assistance from outside parties, however, there is disagreement as to who should help, how much should be done and whether any assistance should wait until things calm down. The U.S. and the International Monetary Fund have offered to help Ukraine rebuild its economy. Deutsche Welle reported that Ukraine has only received $3 billion of the $15 promised by Russia, and the rest of the money has been frozen pending the outcome of the crisis.

Chumachenko said that the U.S. and EU were instrumental in stopping the violence in Ukraine, and that if they had put more political pressure on them sooner, it might have prevented some of the violence.

“I think that the Ukrainian example speaks very clearly that fast and decisive reaction of America and its democratic allies against human rights violations and state terror should be an important element of international politics,” Chumachenko said.

Price said it was important for Americans to be aware of what was happening in Ukraine, but also said she is concerned about media bias from the pro-EU and pro-Russia sides.

“I think this is a revolution of, by and for the Ukrainian people, and they should be allowed to act without interference from outside countries,” Price said.

Rudenko said that while, in his opinion, staying completely out of it is not an option for the U.S., it is also important that the U.S. take care not to turn Ukraine into a “playground” for post-Cold War political conflict against Russia.

“That would be disastrous for Ukrainian people,” he said.