By Indra Ekmanis
As a panel of scholars analyzed Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests Tuesday night at UW, 5,000 miles away in Kyiv, events turned deadly. At least two protestors were killed by gunshots as pro-European/anti-government forces clashed with riot police.
These are the first reported fatalities of Euromaidan. The protests began Nov. 21, 2013, when Ukrainian officials refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have provided Ukraine with free trade and other economic benefits in exchange for democratizing political reforms. Though Ukrainian leadership had given indications of its intent to sign the agreement, the backpedaling is largely attributed to Ukraine’s balancing act between the EU and Russia. On Dec. 17, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to sell Russia $15 million in Ukrainian bonds and buy Russian gas at a discount.
Many Ukrainians took to the streets and have camped in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and surrounding buildings for the past two months. The protesters initially demanded leaders sign the association agreement, but demands have escalated to calls for Yankukovych’s resignation and new elections. At times the crowds have swelled to more than 800,000 protestors, but support for Euromaidan has been waning among the general Ukrainian population.
On Jan. 16, the Ukrainian parliament quickly pushed through a sweeping anti-protest law. Referred to as “dictatorship laws” by protestors, the legislation criminalizes “mass disruptions,” wearing masks and helmets in peaceful protests, and unauthorized encampments, among other activities. Additionally, the government is granted the right to prohibit Internet access and riot police are granted immunity from crimes committed against protestors. (Chesno, a pro-transparency organization, provides an infographic of the law here.)
The crackdown also limits the involvement of religious organizations in “extremist” activities. Indeed, religious leaders have been an overlooked mainstay of the protests, said Eugene Lemcio, a panelist and professor emeritus at Seattle Pacific University.
“Unlike protests in Western Europe and Russia, this is not just seen as a political and economic exercise,” he said. Rather, there are significant moral and religious underpinnings to the protest. Lemcio said prayer and scripture readings have been a consistent part of the demonstrations, and that there has been a high level of interdenominational Christian cooperation. Jewish and Muslim minorities have tended to play a low-key role in Euromaidan, he said. Religious representatives have traditionally been a pastoral presence; Lemcio said it is important for religious institutions to maintain independence and avoid being subsumed by a political party.
Volodymyr Lysenko, research scientist and lecturer at UW’s Information School, discussed information and cyber technologies being used by demonstrators and the government. While cell phones, social media and independent Internet news organizations have played a large role in connecting protestors, the government has begun to disrupt these communications.
“During the active police attacks on the protestors, the mobile access around these events is shut down,” Lysenko said. Individuals buying SIM cards are now required to register with identification, and the government has sent intimidating text messages (SMS) to protesters identifying them as participating in mass disturbances. Lysenko said spammers, possibly Ukrainian or Russian state police, have clogged communication channels like Twitter with “garbage” tweets, rendering the channels useless.
Off-line, the government has also reportedly funded “titushky,” thug-like militants who have provoked chaos in the streets, said Olha Krupa, assistant professor at Seattle University. There are a number of players in Euromaidan, but a significant lack of a united opposition or prominent opposition leaders, she said. Yanukovych has also been decidedly silent. Why that is the case is up for speculation. “There are two versions that are circulating around. One is that he is afraid … Two is that he has reached a certain agreement with Putin and he can’t step down,” said Krupa.
Well attended by University and community members, the panelists discussed the ongoing situation in Kyiv and interacted with audience members until late in the evening. A live stream of the protest projected during the panel showed multiple firework explosions in the square and the arrival of an ambulance.
“Events are unfolding as we speak,” said Ellison Center Director and panel moderator Scott Radnitz.