Violence broke out in the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine today between pro-democracy protesters and riot police. At least nine people have been killed and hundreds more seriously injured, including journalists for Reuters and the AP. The fighting turned central Kyiv into a fiery war zone as black smoke continues to billow up from the city.
The protests began late November after Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly changed his mind about signing an agreement that would align his country with the EU and its anti-corruption requirements. Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe, according to Transparency International, a watchdog-dog organization. Benefiting from a weak opposition, Yanukovych was elected democratically in 2010, but after taking office he repeatedly changed the constitution to consolidate his power. His abuses range from privatizing national park land for his own use to his son, a former dentist, being worth an estimated $500 million. To further turn his back on the West, Yanukovych in December accepted a $15 billion lifeline from Russia, a country with an abysmal human rights record and a history of committing genocide against Ukrainians, which I wrote about for TIME.
In reaction to Yanukovych’s warm embrace of Russia, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians demonstrated in Kyiv’s Independence Square for weeks demanding closer ties with the EU. Since then, with the repeated use of violence on protesters by riot police, the demonstrations have been calling for him to resign. In January, Yanukovych illegally passed sweeping anti-democracy laws which included criminalizing unauthorized demonstrations, freedom of speech, investigative journalism, and wearing helmets–a necessity for protesters given the violence inflicted by police.
As I’ve written about before for Big Think, Ukrainians are fighting to live in a stable democracy–something you and I in the West take for granted. The courage of Ukrainians in the face of yet another government crackdown, this one the most violent to date, underscores that determination. From The New York Times:
The push into Independence Square by anti-riot forces spread chaos and fire across the protest zone, with tents ablaze as police advanced through clouds of smoke and tear-gas. The 20,000 or so protesters sang the national anthem against the din of percussion grenades, fireworks and what, on occasion, sounded like gunfire.
A phalanx of riot police officers, backed by a water cannon, pushed through protesters’ barricades near the Ukraina Hotel and fired tear gas as they advanced toward the center of the square. People covered in blood staggered to a medical center set up in the protest encampment.
In the late evening, a group of several hundred riot police officers finally overpowered protesters at the barricades near the Khreshatyk Hotel and, banging their shields, began to move towards the center of the protester’s encampment on Independence Square. Another phalanx that had earlier penetrated the area, pushing down Instituts’ka Street past the Ukraina Hotel, was stalled by a wall of flaming rubber tires.
With visibility sharply reduced to just a few yards by thick clouds of acrid smoke, it was often difficult to determine who was firing what at whom. Music blared from a stage set up by protesters who, although boxed in all sides, showed little sign of dispersing.
Image Credit: EspressoTV livestream