A Handy Guide to What the Hell Just Happened in Ukraine
In a matter of days, the political situation in Ukraine changed dramatically.
The parliament impeached President Viktor Yanukovych, the country's former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was set free and snap elections are set to occur on May 25 of this year.
Amidst all of the upheaval, over 70 people have been killed and more than 500 injured.
So how did this all happen? Here's a quick recap.
The problems started with the economy. Ukraine has a debt of about $9 billion this year alone, and the country was supposed to pay the IMF about $3.6 billion at the beginning of 2014.
On November 22, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was set to sign an association agreement with the European Union that would have helped pull the country out of debt, but he backtracked on the deal to pursue closer ties with Russia.
When the news broke that Yanukovych wouldn't go through with the EU deal, thousands of people poured onto Kiev's Independence Square in protest. Ukraine's deal with the EU would have forced Yanukovych to pass judicial and financial reforms, which would have essentially ended the president's creative budgeting that helped make him and his political allies some of Ukraine's richest men.
People weren't just protesting for the EU. They were protesting to bring "European standards" of governance to Ukraine.
How did this all escalate?
In short: through a series of poor political calculations from ex-President Yanukovych.
First, Yanukovych tried several times to clear protesters from Maidan Square by force, making the EuroMaidan activists even more resolute. Then he passed a draconian anti-assembly law, which further enraged protesters and even riled up the general apolitical group of fanati, or die-hard soccer fans. (The fans were no longer allowed to assemble during soccer matches under the new law.)
On Jan. 22, the first deaths occurred when Ukrainian special forces shot at anti-government protesters, further enraging Ukrainians.
By mid-February, negotiations between Yanukovych's government and opposition leaders reached a stalemate and the president tried to clear out protesters from Maidan again. This time, however, the special police force, called Berkyt, were allowed to shoot at protesters who were armed only with home-made molotov cocktails and bats. The results were bloody: Over 70 people were killed and 500 people injured during several days of fighting on and around Maidan Square. Unlike in the U.S., there are many restrictions that limit the buying and selling of weapons in Ukraine, making it difficult for protesters to get their hands on firearms.
Why were there so many pictures of Kiev burning?
It's important to remember that Kiev wasn't burning; a small portion of the city center was on fire. Protesters took to burning tires as a way to ward off the special police forces. The rubber in tires lets off a pungent smell. There were also camp fires, usually in old metal barrels, that kept protesters warm.
Who is in charge in Ukraine right now?
The Ukrainian Parliament impeached Viktor Yanukovych over the weekend and assigned Oleksandr Turchinov as the interim president. Last week, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to return to the country's 2004 constitution.
EuroMaidan activists are still camped out on Maidan and the group remains a self-organizing entity.
Of particular note is that in Ukraine's eastern and southern regions where Yanukovych enjoyed wide-spread support, there has been resistance to removing Yanukovych's old allies from power.
How did Yulia Tymoshenko get out of prison?
The Ukrainian Parliament allowed her release. Yanukovych imprisoned his long-time rival in a highly politicized trial in 2010, and Tymoshenko left prison and returned to Kiev hours after her release. On Saturday night, she greeted the crowds from her wheelchair and thankied them for their support in what many believe is the beginning of an attempted political comeback.
Where is Viktor Yanukovych?
That's the million-dollar question. The newly-impeached president reportedly left Kiev on Friday and has been skirting around the country with activists in hot pursuit. Parliament has issued a warrant for Yanukovych's arrest. While his exact whereabouts are unknown, the ex-president is said to be somewhere in Crimea, a southern peninsula in Ukraine that juts out into the Black Sea.
Image Credit: AP. Protester waves EU flag outside of Yanukovych's abandoned private home in Mezhyhirya.
How much longer will the protesters stay camped out on Maidan?
It's unclear. Many opposition leaders, Tymoshenko included, have urged them to stay on Maidan until a new government is in place. However, the protesters are self-organized and it is unclear what their next move will be.
Are the opposition leaders in charge of the protesters?
No. While the three main opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyahnybok appeared on stage at the EuroMaidan protesters, they are not in charge. In fact, there is some resentment towards the trifecta for their willingness to negotiate a deal with Yanukovych.
So, is the EU deal still on the table?
It seems so. The EU has been reluctant to make any hard and fast deals with Ukraine until the country has sorted out who is in power, but EU Policy Chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine on Monday to help fix Ukraine's wobbly economy, according to a Reuters report.
So did Ukraine end up getting any money from the Russians?
Yes and no. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal with Yanukovych at the beginning of December, but Putin has made it abundantly clear that the terms of the bailout deal depend on who is in power in Ukraine.
As one economist put it: Russia does not need Ukraine economically. Rather, Russia needs to have Ukraine in its orbit as a matter of self-esteem. Letting one former Soviet Republic out of the Kremlin's political orbit would be a bad precedent.
Russia has given Ukraine at least $2 billion in bailout money, but how much Ukraine can expect in the future depends on the political situation in the country.