It is easy to mistake pictures coming out of the Kiev, Ukraine protests with scenes from a dystopian film. Images of riot police marching through flurries of ash, swarms of flag touting protesters and the remains of torched buses have become eerily common. What began as peaceful protests against their country’s president have turned into something verging dangerously on revolution.
Protests in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, began after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly ended talks with the European Union on Nov. 21, 2013. Ukraine had been seriously considering joining the E.U. for over a year and Yanukovych’s decision to end the conversation implied a pivot away from the E.U. and back towards Russia.
People took to the streets of Kiev to protest this sudden shift in foreign policy, as well as Yanukovych’s growing authoritarianism, seen most clearly in the jailing of journalists in recent years. Most of the protesters come from Kiev and Western Ukraine, which have close ties to the E.U. In contrast, Yanukovych maintains a strong support among much of Russian-speaking Eastern and Southern Ukraine. A few rallies in support of Yanukovych have been held, but the vast majority of the protests has been in opposition to him.
For many, fears of greater Russian influence in Ukrainian affairs were confirmed when Russia promised Ukraine $15 billion in aid. The resolve of many protesters faltered after news of the promised aid, but anger was rekindled when pro-oppositionist journalist Tetyana Chornovol was beaten on Dec. 25.
In mid January, the Ukrainian government began passing laws to restrict the protests. Legislation banning the construction of stages in the square and prohibiting the wearing of masks or helmets was discussed. Fifteen year prison sentences for participants of any rally deemed violent by the government were touted. The peaceful protests turned violent. In an Orwellian turn of events, reports of the government tracking protesters via their cell phones and sending threatening text messages began to emerge.
Protesters attempted to storm the president’s office while holding off police using flares and a front end loader. What had begun as peaceful protests now seemed dangerously like revolution. The protesters’ numbers swelled, crowds were now larger than they had been during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution nine years previously. The protests had become Ukraine’s worst unrest since it gained independence in 1991.