Thousands and thousands of people have taken to the streets of Ukraine since Nov. 21, when President Viktor Yanukovych announced he would not sign a trade agreement with Europe but would pursue closer economic ties with Russia instead.
Not only has that decision touched off an uproar, it has brought out disparate groups of people, thrust opposition politicians into the forefront — and made new hashtags wildly popular on Twitter. The leader among them is #euromaidan.
On Friday, Yanukovich stopped off in the Russian city of Sochi on his way back from China for a quick visit with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart. That is bound to stir more disquiet on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in coming days.
Here are some names and places to know as events unfold in Ukraine:
He was Putin’s candidate in 2004 but lost. Putin came to dislike him after his comeback victory in 2010 finally made him Ukraine’s president. From the industrial eastern heartland of Donetsk, Yanukovych served time in prison in the Soviet era for assault. As president he has showered his immediate circle of Donetsk cronies with favors. Now everyone in Ukraine calls them “The Family.”
Yanukovych maintained all year that he wanted to sign with the European Union, then reversed course at the last minute, after an unpublicized eight-hour meeting with Putin. The Russian president apparently laid out for him how much damage Russia could do to Ukraine’s economy and how difficult that would make Yanukovych’s bid for reelection in 2015.
The crowds are large and varied, with many young people, but committed older ones as well. Many are pro-Europe. Others are simply anti-Russian. Thousands of others joined in to defend human rights, angry that protesters had been beaten. And there is a rough element — the protests have also attracted members of the nationalist Svoboda party led by Oleg Tyahnybok, some of whom hold anti-Semitic views.
The hashtag #euromaidan has become popular on Twitter. Maidan refers to the square where the protests are taking place, with Euro alluding to dreams of Europe. Protesters are also bringing the word titushki into wider usage. Titushki are thuggish men thought to be provoking demonstrators on behalf of the authorities.
A reformer who helped lead the Orange Revolution of 2004, he was interior minister in the previous government and was then prosecuted for embezzlement and abuse of office as soon as Yanukovych, the loser in 2004, won the presidency in 2010. His case was one of those that brought sharp criticism of Ukraine’s “selective justice” from leaders in the E.U. and the United States. He served a little more than two years in prison before Yanukovych pardoned him in April of this year.
Acknowledging that millions of Ukrainians were disillusioned by the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, Lutsenko today argues that the time has come to do it right.
He is the leader of the parliamentary faction of Fatherland Party. This is the party founded by Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister now in prison. Yatsenyuk was at various times minister of economy and foreign minister under Tymoshenko.
Yatsenyuk has always cast himself as a principled reformer, and at times was at odds with Tymoshenko over questions of policy and politics. He ran against her and Yanukovych for president in 2010.
The former WBO and WBC heavyweight champion, he had a knockout-to-bout ratio second only to Rocky Marciano’s. Now he’s in politics, and his party is called UDAR, which means “punch.”
Klitschko has no association with the Orange Revolution or the unpopular governments that followed it, but he is a ferocious critic of Yanukovych. As early as September, Klitschko was challenging Yanukovych to resign if he wouldn’t sign the agreement with the E.U.
Currently in a prison hospital, the former prime minister decided Friday to end a hunger strike that she started to protest the failure to sign with the E.U. She was convicted of abuse of office in 2011. The E.U., again citing “selective justice,” has demanded that she be released. Yanukovych can’t bring himself to do it.
Wildly popular when she dramatically became the personification of the Orange Revolution nine years ago, her two stints as prime minister were troubled and complicated. Her supporters are passionate. So are her detractors.
Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko issued a joint statement sympathizing with the protests and warning that the government is losing control of the situation. But none of them commands a significant following among the public. Kuchma, however, is the father-in-law of the powerful business tycoon Viktor Pinchuk, whose opposition to Yanukovych’s government of President Viktor Yanukovych would be consequential.
The head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has put his moral authority behind the protesters. When riot police beat and pursued a group of demonstrators, Orthodox monks gave them sanctuary in a historic monastery. Filaret, wary of domination by Russia and its Orthodox Church, favors closer ties with Europe.
Ukraine’s chief business leaders have had their quarrels with Yanukovych, who has been partial to his own business associates. Pinchuk is perhaps the most outspoken. Dmytro Firtash is deeply involved in the natural gas business and deeply hostile to Tymoshenko; American diplomats have suggested that he has criminal ties. He should be a natural ally of Yanukovych, but reports have linked him to the UDAR party. UDAR denies this. Rinat Akhmetov, a coal baron from the Donetsk region, was closest to Yanukovych, but last year he retreated from politics, apparently in an effort to upgrade his image.