Stuff's rapidly getting real in Russia's largest neighbor to the West. Here's what you need to know.
What the hell is going on right now?
Thousands of anti-government protesters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, have brought the city to a standstill over the past several days. Yesterday, more than a million Ukrainians rallied in the streets, demanding the permanent ouster of strongman President Viktor Yanukovich—more protesters than the largest rally in that country's successful "Orange Revolution" nine years ago.
The protests got really nuts late Sunday, when ralliers used flares and a backhoe to push police back in an attempt to storm the president's office:
Demonstrators have also broken into a number of government buildings, including the Kiev city hall, shown in the video below:
Protesters have taken over the city's main square and renamed the city hall "Revolutionary Headquarters." The demonstrators are now calling for a national strike and are planning more rallies today, according to CNN:
"This is not a protest. This is a revolution," protest leader Yuri Lutsenko, told a crowd of thousands who packed Independence Square on Sunday.
"Revolution! Revolution!" the crowd chanted.
Why are the protests happening now?
For more than a year, Ukraine's president flirted with a European Union partnership. But Yanukovich abruptly stopped his talks with the EU on November 21, a signal that he wanted to bring Ukraine closer to the Russia's sphere of influence, not Western Europe's. That didn't please many Ukrainians, who hoped the EU deal would bring the country politically and economically closer to the west and potentially open up more opportunities for workers:
Many protesters see Russian President Vladimir Putin behind Yanukovich's U-turn, and Putin (a former KGB head) has ridiculed the protests as incited by professional militants—a line he's used to justify propping up tyrannical allies before.
But beyond Yanukovich's sudden tilt toward Moscow, the ralliers are protesting what they see as a return to Soviet-style repression in Ukraine. A number of investigative journalists have been attacked or killed in recent years, and political dissidents also face imprisonment.
What's the backstory here, with this "Orange Revolution"?
Yanukovich has been here before, kinda sorta. A former Soviet central planner, he faced a reformer, Viktor Yushchenko, in Ukraine's 2004 election for president. Yanukovich was certified as the winner, but that result didn't sit well with protesters, who (correctly) alleged large-scale voting fraud, took to the streets, and ultimately succeeded in getting a new election. (Yushchenko, the spry opposition candidate, also was allegedly poisoned with dioxin during the bitter campaign; here's an insane before-and-after pic.)
After the popular outpouring of disgust with the election results, a second ballot was held, which Yushchenko and his "Orange coalition" won handily.
But Yanukovich wasn't finished. He ran again for president in 2010, this time against a reformist woman, Yulia Tymoshenko, who had served as Yushchenko's prime minister after the Orange Revolution. Yanukovich won, but Tymoshenko refused to recognize the results, arguing that the old Soviet was up to his old vote-fixing ways.
Yanukovich ended up in the president's office; Tymoshenko ended up in jail on a buffet of charges; her supporters allege she's being tortured in prison.
So what the hell happens now?
Yanukovich is in a tight spot. Several members of his own government have resigned or abandoned him; a robust opposition bloc in Ukraine's Parliament opposes him (including former heavyweight boxer Vitaly Klitschko, who's announced his own run for president in 2015); and the protesters are increasing in number and fervor. Here's Klitschko rallying the demonstrators on Sunday:
It appeared that Yanukovich might take Ukraine into a Russian-led trade union as an alternative to the EU's offer, but his opponents might get even more serious if he tries to get to cozy with Putin now. If he tries to declare a state of emergency against the protesters, he could be further screwed in the international community. Unless he bows to at least some of the ralliers' demands soon, he's likely to leave office, whether he accedes to it or not.
[Photo credits: AP]