On Sunday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Kiev to protest the Ukrainian government's decision to call off plans for a trade deal with the European Union. The protests were the largest to take place in the country since 2004's Orange Revolution, when accusations of corruption and electoral fraud during that year's presidential election brought thousands of people to the streets and helped overturn the election of Viktor Yanukovych. According to police estimates, Sunday's protest attracted 23,000 people while organizers estimated the number at over 100,000.
The protests were set off by the announcement on Thursday that the Ukrainian government would no longer pursue preparations for the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union in order to "ensure the national security of Ukraine" and "restore lost trade volumes with the Russian Federation." The deal would have created a new framework for trade between the former Soviet republic and the EU, but was seen as worrisome by Russia, which had threatened economic sanctions and travel restrictions should the deal go through.
The Ukrainian parliament had also voted down bills last week which would have allowed imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- a key figure in the Orange Revolution -- to go to Germany for medical treatment. The release of Tymoshenko, whose jail term for abuse of power and embezzlement is widely seen as politically motivated, was one of the conditions for the EU deal. Kiev has instead announced intentions to create a joint commission to discuss relations between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.
Clashes with Police
It was Tymoshenko who had called for the Sunday protests, where demonstrators marched with flags of the European Union and Ukrainian opposition parties, and shouted slogans like, "We are not the Soviet Union, we are the European Union." Speakers included opposition politician and boxer Vitali Klitschko, who claimed authorities had delayed his plane from landing and said his pro-European party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, would "fight for the signing of the Association Agreement." Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the debate around the deal as a "choice between the past and the future." After the protest, demonstrators clashed with police, which used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
Tymoshenko's 33-year-old daughter, Eugenia, read a statement from her mother at the protest and, in an interview with Germany's Bild tabloid on Monday, asked the German government for help. "I think Germany is my mother's last chance," she told the newspaper. German Chancellor Angela Merkel "cannot give up," she said, adding that if her mother, who is hoping to come to Germany to be treated for a herniated disk, "is not freed soon, she will die." She also called for Germany to "play a decisive role" in the next few days in order to move the Association Agreement forward.
European politicians have reacted angrily to Ukraine's decision to veer away from the European Union. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski described Russia's tactics as a "19th-century mode of operating towards neighbors." EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said, "This is a disappointment not just for the EU but, we believe, for the people of Ukraine." In her weekly video podcast on Saturday, Merkel expressed a desire to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue.
This week's planned EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithunia -- where Ukraine was slated to discuss the deal -- will, however, move forward. In the wake of the Ukraine decision, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili reaffirmed his country's intention to pursue an Association Agreement with the European Union. Moldova is also expected to sign an agreement at the summit.