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Europe

Opinion: Between dream and nightmare

Mass protests in the capital of Kyiv clearly show how Ukrainians refuse to be shut up. But it's not only about Europe any more, rather about Ukrainian democracy itself, says DW's Bernd Johann.

It's not been since the so-called Orange Revolution that Ukraine has seen such waves of protests. Back then, in the winter of 2004, people took to the streets for democracy and the future of their country. Now, they are marching again - this time, too, for democracy and the future of their county. And, again, it's one man who stands at the center of the situation: Viktor Yanukovych. As back then, the matter of whether Ukraine remains democratic or turns into in authoritarian state lies largely in his hands.

In 2004, people protested against Yanukovych because he resorted to rigging the election to become president. Now he is president of Ukraine, and people protest against him because they have lost belief in Yanukovych intending to lead their country towards the EU. Demonstrations also continue out of fear that he might not only take from them the European prospect, but democracy, too.

Bernd Johann, head of the Ukrainian service at DW (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)

Bernd Johann, head of the Ukrainian service at DW

Impressive protests despite police violence

As a consequence, well over 200,000 Ukrainians took to the streets of Kyiv on Sunday (01.12.2013) - to protest against their government, and against the president. They came from a wide range of social groups - including students and workers as well as elderly people and families with children, amid fears that the protests might escalate.

It was an impressive display of defiance against any ban on demonstrations - against the government, and a president who suddenly and unexpectedly shelved long-made plans for EU accession - instead announcing a rekindled closer cooperation with Russia.

For days people have been protesting against this decision. Not only has the European dream of democracy and prosperity all but dissipated, it might even turn into a nightmare - ending in state-orchestrated repression, following the examples of neighboring Russia and Belarus. Harbingers of this took shape within the dreadful events that happened in Kyiv in the night from Friday to Saturday, when special police units of the Interior Ministry moved out against the peaceful pro-European protesters - unannounced, and with incredible violence.

A political turning point

Ukrainians are familiar with such abuses by the police through media coverage about Moscow and Minsk. Their own country, however, hasn't seen such things since the Orange Revolution. In fact, the capital of Kyiv practically hasn't seen a week without some from of demonstration or proclamation. Ukrainians have gotten used to enacting their right to assemble in a creative and colourful manner. And now, of all times, when decisions of national importance like the EU accession are hanging by a thread - decisions that are of everyone's concern - out come the police batons.

It could be a political turning point the public is unwilling to accept. This, too, the Kyiv mass demonstrations are a sign of: Ukrainians refuse any orders to stay quiet. Until now, protests in the capital and elsewhere were primarily against the decision to postpone EU accession talks. But after the violence against peaceful demonstrators, the movement has gained new momentum: Calls are not only for a change in foreign policy any more; now it's about the government and its president to step down.

President under pressure

Ukraine's opposition - demanding a change in Kyiv politics for years - has benefited from the mass demonstrations, more of which will follow. For the time being, it remains uncertain how the country's leadership will react to this. President Yanukovych is facing enormous pressure; overt protests are now flickering up within his own ranks, too. Some delegates have even left his party; the head of his presidential office, too, has stepped down.

Back in 2004, during the Orange Revolution - after a lengthy period of hesitation - Yanukovych accepted the people's protest. Now it's decision time again: Will he continue to respect the people's right to free speech and assembly? The moment has come that he needs to tell this to the Ukrainian people - together with answering the question, whether the European dream will, in the end, still become reality, or whether it will turn into the nightmare of an authoritarian state that could never be part of Europe.

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