In Europe, the past two weeks have been a time of respite from politics as people celebrated Christmas and new year. At the same time in Kyiv, thousands of Ukrainians kept spending day and night on “Euromaidan”, protesting against the blocking of their road to Europe.
On January 5 about 10,000 people gathered in Kyiv's Independence Square for the first major opposition protest rally of the new year. Pro-EU activists had been demanding new presidential and parliamentary elections, since Ukrainian President Viktor Yankukovych decided to freeze a deal with the EU, but so far their demands have not been met. At the event, opposition leaders urged their supporters to continue the protests after public holidays this week of celebrations which mark the Orthodox Christmas. Protesters have camped out since late November on Independence Square, where they have erected makeshift barricades. Udar party leader Vitali Klitschko was among the critics of the Ukrainian president and said “we will fight to the bitter end. We will not go away”. The parliamentary opposition signalled its commitment to keeping the political pressure on the ruling parties until Ukraine’s next scheduled elections in 2015.
‘Pattern of targeted violence aimed at activists and journalists’
The brutal attack on an anti-government activist on December 25 ignited a new series of protests. Tetyana Chornoval, a journalist known for her investigations into government corruption, became a symbol for the Ukrainian opposition as she was heavily beaten by unknown assailants. The attack came shortly after she had published an article on the assets of senior government officials. In the following days, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry headquarters, accusing authorities of ordering police officers to carry out the attack and demanding Ukraine’s interior minister to resign.
The United States expressed ‘grave concern’ over the attack, calling it part of an ‘emerging pattern of targeted violence and intimidation’ aimed at activists and journalists who have participated in or reported on the ongoing pro-EU protests in Ukraine.
Rise of far-right party Svoboda
During the last months, Ukrainian far-right party Svoboda (Freedom Party) has become a key participant in the protests against President Yanukovych’s decision to suspend a deal with the EU. On the first of January thousands of Svoboda’s supporters held a torch-lit procession through the capital. The marchers were marking the birthday of a World War Two-era partisan leader. The marchers shouted "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Death to the enemies!" as they marched through Kyiv.
The man whose birth the march commemorated, Stepan Bandera, is a controversial figure. In western Ukraine, many revere him as a national hero, while in Russia and eastern Ukraine some accuse him of having co-operated with the Nazis. How Svoboda will emerge from Ukraine’s turmoil remains to be seen, but its growing influence, hostility towards Russia and praise for Bandera could deepen the country’s political divisions.
Gas deal with Russia
Despite the mass protests, Ukraine’s authorities are continuing to turn eastward, towards Russia. Today, on January 9, Ukraine's state energy firm Naftogas and Russia's Gazprom signed a formal amendment to a gas contract cutting the price of Russian gas by a third for the first quarter of 2014. According to the agreement, the new price level must be confirmed every quarter, an arrangement that creates financial leverage for Moscow to prevent Kyiv from seeking to revive ties with the EU. The former Soviet republic had also imported gas from EU members Hungary and Poland - most of which was supplied to them by Russia - but Ukraine suspended imports in January due to high prices.