In 2014, protests against President Yanukovych’s betrayal of his electoral program escalated to violence and death.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 2 of 4. Read article 1.
The Orange Revolution, which I discussed in the previous article, was not the end of the political career of Viktor Yanukovych, the politician whose presidential election was annulled by the Supreme Court for electoral fraud in 2004. While immediately after his December 2004 defeat, Yanukovych signed in 2005 a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia, in subsequent years he repositioned himself as a moderate who tried to maintain good relations both with Russia and the West.
As documents that emerged in the American trial of lobbyist and one-time chair of Trump’s presidential campaign Paul Manafort conclusively proved, Yanukovych was helped to reinvent himself by American consultants and lobbyists, both Democrat and Republican. Yanukovych ran again for President in 2010, with a platform that included Ukraine’s request to become part of the European Union. He won the election by obtaining in the second turn 48.95% of the vote against 45.47% of his opponent Julia Tymošenko.
Although some claims of fraud were raised by Tymošenko, the international organizations that had sent observers, including the OSCE and the European Union, certified the 2010 elections as valid. Yanukovych was the legitimately elected President of Ukraine.
After his election, however, Yanukovych made little progress with the negotiations to join European Union. Instead, its government became increasingly authoritarian. Opponents, including Tymošenko in 2011, were arrested on corruption charges many regarded as trumped-up.
On November 21, 2013, Yanukovych abruptly announced that he would not sign the Association Agreement with the European Union that had been agreed upon, and would rather enter into a treaty of economic cooperation with Russia. This was a complete about-face with respect to the program on which he had been elected. However, the European Union issue was not the only reason that led students to Maidan Square in Kiev on the same day, November 21, to protest. The European about-face came on top of years of repressive policies and accusations of massive government corruption.
One of Yanukovych’s attitudes that angered many Ukrainians was his denial of the Holodomor, a key part of Ukrainian historical memory. In 1932–33, Stalin organized an artificial famine in a large area of Ukraine, with troops preventing Ukrainians from moving elsewhere. In Stalin’s mind, the famine should exterminate the Ukrainian small landowners, the backbone of the anti-Soviet opposition. The Holodomor, the Ukrainian holocaust by starvation, killed at least 3.5 million Ukrainians, and is now widely, if not unanimously, recognized as a genocide.
In Putin’s Russia, that Stalin was responsible for the Holodomor is denied, and the event is explained away as a natural famine. Yanukovych tried to silence the commemorations of the Holodomor in Ukraine, and claimed that “blaming one of our neighbors [Russia] for it is unjust.”
When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his visit to Ukraine went to pay his respects to the victims of the Holodomor, many of whom were ancestors of Canadian Ukrainians, at the Kiev memorial of the genocide, Yanukovych declined to participate and told Harper there had been no genocide. As some scholars have noted, many non-Ukrainians failed to understand the enormity of Yanukovych’s claim. It was as if a president of Israel would publicly deny the Holocaust.
What started in Maidan Square as a small and peaceful protest mostly by university students escalated to violence and to a revolution, which was called Euromaidan or the Revolution of Dignity. What changed the course of the events was the brutal repression of the students by police on November 29. Dozens of students were badly beaten. Many who went to Maidan Square after November 29 would probably not have protested for the European Union, but took to the streets to denounce police brutality, which they regarded as evidence of the authoritarian drift of the Yanukovych government.
The number of protesters in Kiev, originally a few thousands, escalated to 400,000 according to the most conservative estimates or 800,000 according to the most generous. One difference with the 2004 Maidan was that “local Maidans” also erupted in Lviv and other cities, making the movement calling for the resignation of Yanukovych national. And one point in common with 2014 were the pro-Yanukovych demonstrations in the Donbass and Crimea, which this time went under the name of “Russian Spring.”
What also escalated in and around Maidan Square was the violence. By the end of the demonstrations, there had been 108 casualties among the protesters, and 13 among the security agents. Most of the victims were killed by snipers.
Who were these snipers? Several Ukrainian personalities blamed Russian agents. The mainline theory, shared by most scholars who wrote on the Euromaidan, is that the snipers were part of the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) and had been dispatched by Yanukovych. The Russian and pro-Russian media launched, and have maintained to this day, the theory that the snipers were in fact part of the protest movement, and the opposition had asked them to kill some demonstrators to compel Yanukovych to resign.
The main “evidence” of this theory the Russian camp has offered is a leaked phone call between the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet that appeared on YouTube and was propagated on the Web by the Russian propaganda organ “Russia Today.” Paet told Ashton that during a visit to Kiev he had been told by a medical doctor called Olga, identified by “Russia Today” as popular “Maidan doctor” Olga Bohomolets, that protesters and police officers had been killed by the same bullets, suggesting that the anti-Yanukovych coalition was behind the snipers.
Paet confirmed to the media that the conversation was real but said he was expressing “concerns” rather than coming to conclusions. More importantly, Bohomolets said she had treated only protesters, and Paet had misinterpreted what she had told him. Few among those who repeat the Paet-Bohomolets story have considered that the fact that the same bullets killed police officers and protesters, even if it were true, would not prove that the snipers were working against Yanukovych. Russian agents might have had a vested interest in creating chaos.
Another controversial issue concerns the role of the extreme right in the Euromaidan. I have discussed this point in a series of articles about neo-Nazism in Ukraine, to which I would ask my readers to refer. In short, there were right-wing extremists and even some neo-Nazis among the Euromaidan protesters, but they were a few thousands in a national movement where at least one million took to the streets.
Euromaidan ended when Yanukovych realized that the Parliament would act against him. On February 21, 2014, he signed an agreement with the opposition leaders brokered by the European Union that called for new presidential elections within 2014 and the formation of an interim government leading to them. However, in the night between February 21 and 22 Yanukovych escaped to Karkhiv and then to Russia.
He later claimed that he just went there to “visit,” but the claim defies credibility considering that he destroyed thousands of personal documents and his main aides escaped with him. The claim that Yanukovych was compelled to leave Kiev because the protesters had stormed the presidential office and his residence is also false. Vladimir Putin himself stated in a press conference that these events happened “after” Yanukovych had left Kiev to go to Karkhiv (from where he went to Russia).
On February 22, the Ukrainian Parliament voted with a 73% majority, which included members of Yanukovych’s own party, to “remove” him from the presidency. Putin called this a “coup” orchestrated by the United States. As we will see in the next article of this series, it was just propaganda.