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Deadly Protests in Ukraine: What’s Next for this Divided Country?

Remains of the Euromaidan Headquarters at the Trade Unions Building on Feb. 19, 2014

Escalating political violence reached a boiling point this week in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev as more than 75 people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured in clashes between protesters who are seeking the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and security forces loyal to his government.

Aiming to end the violent standoff, a tentative deal has been reached as of this morning, with Yanukovych and opposition leaders agreeing to reduce the president’s powers, form a new coalition government and hold early presidential elections. But will the concessions be enough to get people out of the streets when they say what they want is for the president to step down?
Update as of Feb. 24: Protestors refused to leave the streets, demanding that Yanukovych be removed from office. The president disappeared Friday and his whereabouts are still unknown. A warrant is out for his arrest and those of several other officials who are under investigation for mass killings of civilians during the protests.

We checked in with international politics expert Daniel Friedheim, PhD, to find out what’s behind these clashes and what’s next for the divided county.

Friedheim is an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of History & Politics who has been teaching about and working in international affairs for more than two decades. He researches and writes about topics ranging from democratic transitions to civil society, informal empire and foreign policy. Prior to his academic career, he served as a tenured U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department.

Why are these protests happening now?

The underlying cause of the violent protests this week is how deeply divided the population is over language, nationality, religion and basic questions like democracy and markets. Those in the western part of the country speak and feel Ukrainian and Ukrainian Catholic; they want a European democracy with freer markets. Those in the East and South speak and feel Russian and Orthodox; they want a stronger leader and state-directed economy.

Political leaders have exacerbated those deep differences for years. Everything, from political parties to constitutional amendments to economic policies, is designed now to appeal to one region or the other rather than the whole country. Powerful foreign states also have intensified these differences. The European Union offered the country one trade treaty and Russia offered it another. Fighting broke out when a president elected by those in the East and South rejected the E.U. offer, embraced the Russian counter-offer and tried to suspend the right to protest peacefully.

Troops form a phalanx against protesters in Kiev

What do the protesters want?

Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is in the western region of the country, and the protesters filling Independence Square demanded pro-Russian President Yanukovych resign, hold early elections and roll back undemocratic constitutional reforms. The leader of an opposition party, called Punch, a one-time boxing champion, delivered these demands to the president personally. As the parliament debated them, though, riot police tried to break up the protests, triggering stone throwing and tire burning. Before political leaders agreed to any compromise, radicals on each side started shooting.

Could this turn into a civil war?

So far, the military has not taken sides, partly because it, too, is divided over the same language, religion, democracy and economy issues as the population. Even though the country does not belong to the E.U., it does belong to NATO, where militaries learn not to intervene in democratic politics. If the president ordered troops to open fire on civilians anyway, many soldiers and officers might refuse. So, he probably won’t take that risk. Unless the army splits into pro-west and pro-East/South factions, full-fledged civil war still seems unlikely.

Could the country split in two?

Yes, the country is so divided that some political leaders already are warning that it could split, possibly into a democratic, free-market west allied with the E.U. and a less democratic, less free-market East and South allied with Russia. Even without a bloody civil war, leaders from each region might discover that the only thing they can agree on is a “velvet divorce” like leaders of the Czech and Slovak Republics agreed to in the 1990s.

But, that’s not inevitable, even now that so many protesters and police are being killed over long-standing divisions. In fact, the violence committed by radicals on each side could even scare moderate politicians into negotiating the kind of grand compromise that has proven impossible until now. The next few weeks are when Ukraine will discover whether it has any truly national leaders capable of bridging deep divisions as Mandela did in post-apartheid South Africa.

Mass protests in Lviv, Ukraine

How have you addressed this in your politics classes?

My “Comparative Politics” class has discussed those popular divisions over nationality, language and religion in Ukraine and whether they make a “nation-state” impossible. My “International Politics” class has discussed the balance of power, economic and military, between the E.U. states and Russia. In addition, the “American Foreign Policy” class next quarter will analyze current support for the eastward expansion of NATO and the E.U. should continue, or not. The Ukrainian protests offer me multiple “teaching moments”!

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Friedheim, should contact Alex McKechnie at or 215-895-2705.

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