The three big reasons that protests reignited in Ukraine

February 18, 2014
The Post’s Max Fisher explains the tension behind the escalating protests in Ukraine. (Kate M. Tobey and Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Ukraine's protests, which began in late November after President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal for closer integration with the European Union, kicked up again Tuesday in the capital, Kiev. Clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces have gotten so bad that, according to an opposition lawmaker, five of the demonstrators have been killed.

Here are three big reasons that protests and violence have escalated again in Kiev:

1. Thousands of protesters marched to the parliament building to support a vote to reduce the president's powers.

In Ukraine's parliament, members of the opposition party tried Tuesday to bring a vote on reverting to the country's 2004 constitution, which would reduce the president's powers. The old constitution, which made the presidency a bit weaker and parliament a bit stronger, was repealed in 2010, shortly after Yanukovych took office. The protesters largely support reverting to the old constitution as a response to what they see as Yanukovych's efforts to consolidate power. So, on Tuesday, a bunch of the protesters in Kiev (Agence France-Presse estimates 20,000 people) marched from Independence Square, where protesters have gathered since November, to the parliament building about a mile away. Security forces tried to stop them from reaching  parliament, which became violent, which allegedly led to today's deaths.

2. Yanukovych is still seen as inching closer to Russia

This has been a major issue for demonstrators since November. They see Yanukovych as bringing their country closer to Russia, and thus symbolically moving it away from Europe. About one-third of Ukraine speaks Russian as their native language, including Yanukovych. The other two-third, who speak Ukrainian, tend to prefer positioning their country as economically and politically closer to Europe than to Moscow.

Yanukovych's government has softened its crackdown on protesters: A draconian law restricting speech and assembly rights was mostly repealed, and on Monday an amnesty for protesters went into force, in exchange for the protests vacating government buildings. But the government is still accepting Russian "bailout" money, which is seen as further tying Ukraine to Russia. On Monday, Moscow announced it would release another $2 billion in aid to Ukraine. That was anticipated – it's part of $15 billion in overall promised aid – but it's a reminder that Yanukovych is sticking with Putin.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Ukrainian opposition leaders in Berlin on Monday. Nothing significant came of the meeting, but it was another of many signs that the opposition is looking West as the government looks East.

3. The core problems driving the protests are all still there.

As I wrote in late January, the last time that protests reignited, Ukraine's politics have long been divided into two major factions by the country's demographics. What's happening right now is in many ways a product of that division, which has never really been reconciled. Just about every Ukrainian government since independence has been seen as representing one "side" of this divide, with the other hating him or her as a perceived foreign pawn. That's exacerbated by political corruption and by the fact that Ukraine's troubled economy does indeed make it reliant on outside countries. Today, Ukraine is still demographically divided, its government is still troubled by corruption, and its economy is still in bad shape. As long as those things are all true, public unrest is likely to continue.

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