It’s easy to dismiss things that are happening more than 5,000 miles from Augusta. After all, it’s almost halfway around the world.
But it becomes impossible to ignore when it affects people you know and care for deeply.
I can’t overlook the political battle – or the Euromaidan as it’s called in Ukraine – that is playing out on Independence Square.
This past May, Augusta Chronicle staffer Kim Luciani and I were fortunate enough to visit this country that borders Russia on the Black Sea. We were there as part of a program administered by the State Department that pairs a U.S. newspaper with an independent Ukrainian newspaper.
During this time, we made friendships that will last us a lifetime.
As a result, we’ve been glued to our computers as we anxiously wait for news about this country that we have both come to love. News filters slowly from a country that hasn’t embraced the idea of a free press – something thankfully guaranteed to us through the First Amendment.
Most of the media outlets are state-run or government-supported.
This isn’t a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It’s an oppressive regime that is seeking to line its pockets at the expense of its people.
Ukraine is led by corruption. And it starts at the top and works its way down – from the president to the police officer who will shake you down for money. This is a lasting legacy that flourishes in this post-Soviet-Union Ukraine – one that will continue to dominate this country of more than 40 million people as long as the close relationship with Russia is able to thrive.
And that’s what Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych wants.
Without it, he and his cronies will be held accountable for their actions.
Protests started Nov. 21 after Yanukovych backtracked on his stated position of signing a trade agreement with the European Union.
Protests are nothing new for Ukraine. We witnessed one last year with thousands of people marching through the streets of Kiev, carrying Ukrainian and European Union flags and calling then on the president to resign.
The protests that started this past November have been mostly peaceful.
But that peace has been broken on numerous occasions.
The first act of violence came Nov. 30, when the riot police, or Berkut as they’re called in Ukraine, swarmed the peaceful protesters that had gathered on the Euromaidan.
What happened next is nothing short of pure brutality.
A video posted on YouTube shows an example of the brutal crackdown that occurred. In it, a man, with a ribbon with the colors of his country’s flag attached to his jacket, stands in the street as hundreds of Berkut invade. He is beaten senseless as they pass him, causing him to fall to the ground. Defenseless, the oncoming stormtroopers continue to beat him as they pass. I counted at least 15 officers who landed a blow on this poor man.
Protesters ran for their lives. Some were able to find refuge in a nearby church, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, where priests locked the gates after they ran in, sheltering them for days and treating their wounds until it was safe to leave.
This isn’t a fight to join the European Union. It’s a fight for a better way of life, against corruption and a desire for transparency in how the country is run. And it started not on the day Yanukovych turned away from the EU, but when he unleashed the Berkut on peaceful protesters.
The people of Ukraine are merely seeking a better life for themselves – where they dream of owning a car or even buying a house, things we take for granted. The average salary is less than $300 per month. That’s $3,600 a year.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych and his cronies live high on the hog. They’re the richest people in Ukraine and have great political influence. These oligarchs emerged after Ukrainian independence in 1991, and most are believed to have built their wealth through shady business dealings with Russia.
This is why the people of Ukraine are protesting.
At first, small numbers of protesters gathered on the Euromaidan. After Nov. 30, the numbers fluctuated from a few thousand to several hundred thousand.
Between flare-ups of violence, college students can be found mingling with factory workers and women pushing baby strollers. One iconic photo from the protest shows a man playing piano in front of a line of police. Another photo shows a priest taking a seat on one of the barricades. It’s a social event. Groups of women even come out offering “hugs for
heroes,” just for the protesters who have braved the winter elements, even sleeping on the cold ground as snow falls on them, to stand up for their beliefs.
Now the protests are reaching cities outside of Kiev, and they’re reminiscent of a similar revolution nearly a decade ago.
The Orange Revolution in 2004 signaled a positive change in the direction of Ukraine. Ironically, it started after the presidential runoff election between Viktor Yushchenko and now-president Yanukovych that declared Yanukovych the winner. This vote was nullified after foreign observers found massive voter fraud and charges of voter intimidation. In the next vote, Yuschenko was declared the winner.
In 2010 Yanukovych was elected president with the stated promise of building closer ties with the European Union.
On Nov. 21, he reneged on that promise and turned Ukraine toward that country of old that once operated under the heavy-handed influence of Moscow.
This seems fitting, as many see Yanukovych as a disciple of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An example can be seen through the swift passage of draconian laws that mimic those passed by Mother Russia.
On Jan. 16, the Ukrainian parliament hastily passed legislation by a show of hands limiting freedom of speech; criminalizing the act of anyone speaking against the government; making it easier for the government to remove members of parliament for any reason; and forcing any nongovernmental organization that receives money from outside Ukraine to register as foreign agents.
Several laws limit edprotests, including a law that made it illegal for anyone to wear a helmet or mask during a protest. Baton-wielding and rubber-bullet-firing Berkut were excluded from this law. Also, a person could be imprisoned for participating in rallies, setting up tents or stages that aren’t authorized and blocking access to public buildings.
These laws had many fearful that Ukraine is about to become a dictatorship.
The passage of these laws sparked several days of fierce fighting between the opposition and the Berkut, in which several protesters have been killed and many on both sides injured.
On Tuesday, those laws were repealed. But the damage is done.
Yanukovych has tried to break the opposition through intimidation. Protesters have regularly been kidnapped, some from their hospital beds. They are beaten and tortured. Some are even killed. A video on the web shows one protester who has been stripped naked, standing in the freezing cold and being forced to have his picture taken with members of the Berkut before he’s allowed to get on a prison bus.
In 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko – a Yanukovych nemesis, a former prime minister of Ukraine and leader of the opposition’s Fatherland Party – was brought before the court on politically motivated charges, and sentenced to seven years in prison. She remains jailed to this day.
On Christmas Day, Tetiana Chornovol, a journalist who has been critical of the government, was attacked by a group of men and nearly beaten to death. Pictures show her with a black eye swollen shut and her lips swollen as she lies in a hospital bed. It’s said she received a broken nose, concussion and numerous bruises in the assault.
This is a government that is against violence, according to Yanukovych.
“I am thinking about these people who came to mass rallies every day… I have never understood violence in my life and it is difficult for me to answer what is the price of violence. Life is the greatest value for each of us,” Yanukovych said.
He is against violence – as long as you are with him. But he uses it with impunity against his foes.
Several investigations have been launched into these attacks, with promises that those involved will be held accountable. These so-called “investigations” are still open.
The people of Ukraine have a history of overcoming hardship – and they will overcome this one.
Fearing the country would revolt against him, Joseph Stalin created the Holodomor, or Ukraine Famine, to crush the nationalistic spirit of the Ukraine people. He instituted communal farming and shipped grain and food items out of the country, resulting in massive food shortages.
Though millions of people died, his attempt at destroying that spirit failed. If anything, he ingrained a sense of national pride into the Ukrainian mind-set that can be seen to this day.
Yanukovych is trying to take a page from Stalin’s playbook. Through intimidation and trickery, he’s trying to crush the opposition and the protests. Evidently he’s not very good at learning from history. I think he’ll soon find out, just as Stalin did, that you can’t break the Ukrainian spirit. It lives on. His presidency won’t.
(The writer is multimedia chief of The Augusta Chronicle.)