Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision not to join the European Union sparked protests that reached a boiling point on Feb. 21, resulting in several deaths and the departure of Yanukovych, who went into hiding. Dr. Martin Blackwell, an associate professor of history at the University of North Georgia, talks about the situation and what the future holds for the former Soviet republic.
What led to the overthrow of Ukraine's president?
Protesters took to the streets of Kiev in November when Yanukovych declined European Union membership and signed an agreement with Russia for loans and continued access to discounted Russian-owned energy. The protesters were met by riot police, and Kiev's main independence square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, was surrounded by barricades. The three months of peaceful protests that followed involved many groups against Yanukovych's corrupt regime.
Unrest spread across Ukraine, especially in the ethnically Ukrainian western and central regions, until mid-February when weapons were seized from police in the western city of L'viv. On the morning of Feb. 21, some 75 protesters – emboldened by the weapons seizures – were killed as they advanced beyond the barricades toward the seats of power in Kiev.
Seeking to diffuse the situation, Yanukovych agreed to hold new presidential elections in December 2014 and revert to the country's 2004 constitution in which the parliament had more influence. The deal ultimately was overtaken by events, and Yanukovych fled after his own riot police had negotiated with protesters for safe passage out of the city.
What's going to happen to Ukraine now?
The parliament is working on a provisional government ahead of new elections scheduled for May 25, and has elected Oleksandr Turchynov as interim president.
Much has been said about Ukraine's ethnic divide, with ethnic Russians making up the majority of the population in the east and southeast and Ukrainians in the west and central regions. The businessmen who control the eastern Ukrainian economy are not interested in having their assets exposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime, so talk of the country splitting in two is far-fetched.
Instead, better access to Europe's markets and eased travel and work restrictions for young Ukrainians could be seen as a remedy to the rampant corruption that was the backbone of Yanukovych's power, and should make the country more attractive to investors.
The main point of trouble, where unrest continues, will be the Crimean Peninsula, which is ethnically Russian. In 1954, a Soviet leader gave the peninsula to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a way of "thanking" the Ukrainians for joining with a budding Imperial Russia in 1654. Though Russia maintains a Crimean port in Sevastopol in agreement with the Ukrainians, Putin is unlikely to use force to take the peninsula because there is little support in Russia these days for extensively using an army and navy still made up largely of draftees.
How might this influence relations between Russia and the United States?
These events are a blow to Putin, who had hoped to keep Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence though the creation of a Eurasian (Customs) Union. Yanukovych's ouster damages Putin as the regime was a mirror of his own – both based off of super presidencies with subservient one-party states, with adherence to corruption and bribery permeating many facets of life.
The U.S. welcomes Ukraine's messy move toward European ideals that are closer to our own, but words are not enough. The U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund needs to offer funds to shore up Ukraine's finances, and the European Union needs to renew its offer of membership to Ukraine. Such moves will keep the pressure on Putin. It remains questionable how long his regime, even with its complete control over the media, can maintain those within its borders who desire a more Westernized culture like the Ukrainians.