Nearly ten years ago, there was an election in Ukraine. It was a ballot for president between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych won, in a ballot riddled with corruption. Yushchenko was ill: poisoned by dioxin. Rumours were spread that the horribly ill and facially disfigured Yushchenko had made up his poisoning as a stunt. Biological samples taken from him were analysed and the results published in The Lancet, showing that the 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin levels in his blood in 2004 were 50,000 times that of the general population.
The people of Ukraine stood up against these outrages in a movement called the Orange Revolution. For two weeks they protested, until a Ukrainian court overturned the election and sent the populace back to the ballot boxes. Yushchenko won this ballot with 52%.
His presidency was not smooth. Yulia Tymoshenko, his Prime Minister (and probably the politician with the best hair ever, which you may know if you know nothing else about her), butted heads with him on a number of issues. Several years passed in which some of the democratic goals of the Orange Revolution were met, and others were lost. He lived up to some of his ideals, and screwed up on others. In the 2010 elections, he lost to Yanukovych, who also defeated the third candidate, Tymoshenko.
While Yushchenko had been pro-European, as was Tymoshenko, Yanukovych was thoroughly rooted in Ukraine’s Soviet past and sought stronger union with Russia and other pro-Russia states. He also oversaw the prosecution of Tymoshenko for a natural gas deal she had made as PM, which saw her jailed in 2011.
Like most leaders of most countries, he was popular with some of his constituents, and not with others. For some years the country muddled along. Then, last year, in the middle of discussions for Ukraine to move towards joining the EU, he declared that they would not be joining the EU, they would be instead turning towards a stronger alliance with Russia.
The people took to the streets. While a large number still felt allied to Russia, a significant majority had wanted to move towards the EU, and in a democracy, majority should rule. It was a calm and ordered revolution, with protesters taking control of the centre of Kiev, the capital, and moving into various government buildings. In December, an Australian journalist interviewed some women shopping in a boutique not far from the protesters. ‘So, life is going on as normal for most of Kiev?’ he asked. ‘Oh yes,’ said one of the women. ‘But once we finish shopping we’ll be heading back down to join the Revolution.’ ‘We are taking food,’ said the other.
Earlier this month, things changed. The president’s security forces had been rolled out in January, and they and the remaining police began to be more violent in their reactions. The protesters went from building barricades and burning tyres to smoke out their opposition to throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks. In the last week, bullets started to fly, apparently all from the side of the security forces and possibly police. In return, more rocks, more petrol bombs.
A few days ago, twenty-odd people were killed, mostly protesters. On Thursday, in the hours that were meant to have been calmed by a truce, the violence increased. Security forces snipers shot at the protesters: medics and journalists on the scene described the shots as expert, a great many victims were killed outright, unlike the random wounding of most clashes with any general military force. Estimates of the dead range from 60 to the high 70s, again mostly protesters. Sixty-seven police and security forces members were said to have been captured.
In the parliament, a great many politicians protested vigorously against the violence. Senior officials resigned from the government party, many of the president’s allies remonstrated with him and begged him to call a halt to the violence. On Friday, the army’s second-in-command resigned, stating that the government had asked soldiers to put down the revolution. During the day, Yanukovych made several concessions in a bid to calm the situation down and appease the protesters.
The same journalist was there, among many others. He went down into the square, where the truce now held. He asked protesters if they were satisfied with Yanukovych’s offer. There was bitter laughter. He asked what had happened to the captured police and security forces, ‘We are releasing them,’ the protesters said. ‘They are Ukranians, we are Ukranians.’
Yesterday, Yanukovych fled. Suddenly the parliament was open to the people rather than walled off by walls of security forces. Inside the building, politicians began to work for constitutional reform that they hoped would prevent anyone ever doing this to the country again.
Outside the city, a large group of protesters and ordinary Ukranians went to the president’s empty compound. Numbers may have been into the thousands. A massive, luxurious mansion set in formal gardens, it spoke of earnings far beyond the presidential salary. They did not riot there. They walked through, in orderly fashion, peering into windows and looking at each other in astonishment. Then, as the journalists who had accompanied them said, they queued in orderly fashion to use the lavatories.
Back in the centre of Kiev, the makeshift hospitals that had patched the wounded and shriven the dead gave up the bodies to their families as citizens began to tally the costs of their fight. A newly released Julia Tymoshenko wept before a crowd of 50,000 revolutionaries and citizens. The Speaker of the parliament was elected interim president.
Back at the presidential compound, ordinary citizens wandered through its private zoo, making sure there was food for the ostriches and deer. A young woman sat on the ground, bemused, patting a lamb and shaking her head.