You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

To Understand the Ukranian Protests, Look to Russia

Rob Stothard/Getty Images News/Getty Images

KIEV—This morning, the much-loathed Ukrainian prime minister, Mykolay Azarov, resigned. A few hours later, the parliament voted to cancel the anti-democratic laws that had brought the country on the brink of civil war. 

For a week, though, both sides in the standoff between security forces and anti-government protesters seemed paralyzed by tunnel vision.

From the point of view of political survival, there was no reason for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to unleash violence against the protestors. Neither was there any benefit in the Euromaidan protest—which emerged as a peaceful pro-European movement two months ago—degrading into an urban guerrilla army. Yet this is what has taken place. Clashes have already resulted in several deaths.

Events began to spiral out of control last week, when the parliament adopted draconian laws. If enforced, they would turn Ukraine into a more dictatorial state than neighboring Russia. The protest that followed the adoption of these laws was a compact and radical affair compared to the grandiose demonstrations that attracted hundreds of thousands back in December.

Then, ignoring protest leaders, militants from the Right Sector—a coalition of ultra-nationalist groups and soccer fans—launched a fierce attack against riot police protecting the parliament. Pictures and videos of bloodied policemen clubbed by the mob emerged on social networks.

The enraged policemen—many of whom hail from the Russophone southeast and believe they are fighting a Nazi rebellion—responded by pelting protesters with rubber bullets, stones, and petrol bombs. Elsewhere in the city, protesters were attacked by hired thugs, known as titushki. A few dozen of these hired men were captured by activists, forced to march through the crowds, and to make humiliating apologies in front of cameras. Riot police responded with a video of a naked prisoner forced to pose in the street at negative ten degrees Celsius.

On Tuesday, the city woke to news of the deaths of two protesters. Later, a protester—50-year-old seismologist Yury Verbitsky—was found dead, with signs of torture, in a forest outside Kiev. Several more deaths followed during the week, including a policeman killed by unknown assailants elsewhere in the city. The government was quick to blame the casualty on the protesters. Toward the end of the week, supporters of Euromaidan started seizing government buildings in western and central Ukraine. By Sunday, Yanukovych was effectively in control of only half of the country and eventually succumbed to pressure from the protesters.

Although attempts to overthrow local administrations also took place in some of the eastern regions, opinion polls show that the country is divided along the historical east-west fault line, with the bulk of the protest concentrated in the west. In the Russian-speaking southeast, up to 70 percent of the population disapproves of the Euromaidan protests. This is not surprising. In the two months that it has existed, the Euromaidan protest has shown hardly any effort to reach out to Russophone Ukraine. On the contrary—to many people in the southeast, the protest has come across as a display of divisive insignia and slogan-chanting (“Ukraine above all”) that harkens back to the collaboration between western Ukrainian guerrilla fighters and the Nazis. 

This is not entirely inaccurate. Since the early days of the protest, militants from Ukraine’s Right Sector movement—comprised of organizations like the self-proclaimed “social-nationalist” Patriot of Ukraine and the supremacist White Hammer movement—have been occupying the fifth floor of opposition headquarters. And past and present leaders of right-leaning movements have become prominent in the Euromaidan protests. The man who founded Patriot of Ukraine, member of parliament Andriy Parubiy (currently a member of a moderate party), became Euromaidan’s commandant in December. Oleh Tiahnibok of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, known for praising anti-Soviet World War II guerrillas’ struggle against what he called “Russians, Yids and other crap,” has emerged as one of the main leaders of the movement. Most protesters don’t share these sentiments, but they mingle with those who do.

Europe and the U.S. tend to ignore, if not endorse, these leanings in the Ukrainian pro-democracy movement. European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton stood next to Tiahnibok during an official photo-op in Kiev during her December visit, for example. But to ignore the alienation of Russophone Ukraine is to fundamentally misunderstand the prospects of the current protests. Russophone Ukraine has a decisive say when it comes to the country’s future. Ukraine is not and will never be a classic monocultural eastern European nation state.

There is no reason why Ukraine's Russophone inhabitants should not support the protests. Euromaidan protesters want their country to join the European Union, and the EU has many qualities that should make it attractive to the Russophones: It protects regional languages and minorities, its welfare standards are more socialist than those in contemporary Ukraine, and it already includes a chunk of the former USSR. That’s on top of the obvious benefits, like political freedom and the rule of law.

Russophones might naturally lean to Russia, but they are not amused by its oil-addicted economy, terrorism, uncontrolled immigration, or its dim political future. Considering Ukraine's European prospects, it is a better place for Russophones, and indeed Russians, to call home.

Identity politics may seem irrelevant when people are dying in the streets of Kiev, but the current protests are unlikely to result in peace or progress unless these divisions are addressed. The democratic gains of the 2004 Orange Revolution quickly evaporated when the victors failed to reach out to the Russophone southeast. The mistakes of that time should not be repeated. 

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.