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Unrest in Ukraine

Alexander Warkentin, Markian Ostaptschuk / gswDecember 3, 2013

Ukrainian demonstrators continue to call for a new government, despite limited pro-EU assurances from the president. The scale of the protests in Ukraine has surprised politicians and experts in both the East and West.

A protester waves a European flag in Ukraine (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Maxim Nikitin)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Ukraine remains on edge, as demonstrators stand by their demands for a new government and the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. They want to reach out to Europe, but without Yanukovych.

The Ukrainian head of state has behaved at times as though his country is not facing a serious political crisis. On Tuesday (03.12.2013), Yanukovych departed for a long-planned trip to China. However, the government also sought to appease protesters after the tumult on the weekend, with Yanukovych pledging to do everything in his power to bring his country closer to the EU.

A 'pause' for the contested agreement?

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov backed the president up, saying that the decision not to sign the EU association agreement does not represent the end of European integration. Instead, he called the move a "pause" on the way to signing such an agreement.

And parliamentarian Volodymyr Olijnyk of the ruling Party of Regions said such a pause was necessary, explaining: "It would have been a capitulation for Ukraine to have signed the association agreement in its current form." Discussions on signing the agreement, Olijnyk added, will continue in early 2014, provided the EU offers more support to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stands with other participants at an EU summit in Lithuania (c) Reuters
Yanukovych (l) has issued lofty demands before an EU deal can go aheadImage: Reuters

President Yanukovych has said that his country needs a stability fund in order to re-orient itself to European markets. Specifically, he claimed last week that Ukraine could need up to a total of 160 billion euros ($217 billion) in financial assistance - widely seen as an unrealistically high demand.

Demonstrators remain unconvinced by such pledges and are sticking to their demands. Sergei Sobolev, deputy head of the oppositional Fatherland party in parliament, believes the protesters are right to remain skeptical. "The current president will never put the country on the path to European integration," he said in an interview with DW, in which he also argued a new government is necessary if Ukrainians want to solidify EU ties.

Protesters' power underestimated

Politicians from both the East and West have been surprised by the extent of the protests. But the chair of the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation, Cornelius Ochmann, told DW that it's not just EU politicians who have been caught off guard.

"It was a huge surprise for everyone, but most of all for President Yanukovych himself," Ochmann said.

Uniformed police officers stand face to face with protesters (c) REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Police violence against protesters on the weekend caused outrageImage: Reuters

Maria Davydchyk of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin (DGAP) said that everyone involved - from Kyiv to Moscow and Brussels - underestimated the situation.

"The Ukrainian government only saw the Eastern Partnership with the EU as an option, provided it fit with domestic developments," Davydchyk said. "On the other hand, the EU has, in fact, sent many signals to Ukraine but hasn't offered any concrete strategies or instruments for solving the actual problems that the country and its people face."

Most European politicians consider Ukrainians' disappointment that their government backed away from an association and free trade agreement with the EU to be the main cause of the protests. Russia played a big part in that decision: It has been putting enormous pressure on Ukraine in recent months.

The actions of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, have been especially instrumental in drawing Ukrainians out into the streets, Ochmann explains. "Putin's appearances have poured oil on the flames because he tried to put Ukraine under more pressure. And Ukrainians no longer want to accept that," Ochmann told DW.

Opportunities for civil society

The EU must pay more attention to Ukraine, says Ochmann, adding that Poland and Germany are already doing so, but that EU countries like Italy, Greece or Spain show only limited interest in the Eastern European country.

He also believes dropping the agreement with the EU was only the catalyst for the current unrest. "Ukrainian civil society is much further along, in my view, than people think," he said. "Ukrainians are sick of the president's approach to governance, and they are now taking the opportunity to express their displeasure."

Angela Merkel speaking at a recent EU summit in Lithuania (C) ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images
Merkel has appealed for peace and lawfulness in UkraineImage: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged the country to remain peaceful during the protests. She also appealed to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to "do everything in order to protect freedom of expression and the right to peaceful demonstration." Other European leaders have also issued calls to Ukraine's parties to avoid violence under any circumstances.

DGAP's Maria Davydchyk says that in future the EU needs to concentrate not just on the Ukrainian elite, and to demonstrate that everyday people's problems are being addressed as well.

A partnership with the EU offers long-term opportunities, says Davydchyk. "These must be conveyed to the people."