Three Ukrainians died in a night of violence near the protest-hub Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev, in the first fatalities since the anti-government demonstrations began in November.
According to Reuters, two of the activists were shot to death and one reportedly died after he fell off the Dynamo football stadium. Hundreds were injured, and authorities suspect the far-right group Right Sector of inciting some of the violence. Ukrainian riot police were allegedly unarmed during the scuffle.
Ukrainians first took to the streets in November to protest President Viktor Yanukovych's last-minute decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, opting instead to maintain closer ties with Russia. The landmark agreement, which would have eased trade regulations between the EU and the former Soviet republic and linked the nations in other ways, was seen by many Ukrainians as a way to shrug off ties to the Soviet bloc. (On the flip side, it was also seen as President Yanukovych taking his orders from Moscow.) The EU's website described the agreement Yanukovych's decided against it as "a pioneering document," adding:
It is the first agreement based on political association between the EU and any of the Eastern Partnership countries, and is unprecedented in its breadth (number of areas covered) and depth (detail of commitments and timelines). The key parts focus on support to core reforms, economic recovery and growth, and governance and sector cooperation in areas such as energy, transport and environment protection, industrial cooperation, social development and protection, equal rights, consumer protection, education, youth, and cultural cooperation. The Agreement also puts a strong emphasis on values and principles: democracy and the rule of law, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, a market economy and sustainable development.
The agreement did not sit well with Russia which, according to Yanukovych, put pressure on the president to steer clear of the association. According to the BBC, Russia has a different read on Ukraine's future:
Russia is putting pressure on ex-Soviet republics to join its own customs union instead. Moscow wants to create a Eurasian trading bloc that could eventually rival the EU, but without the commitment to democracy and openness demanded by Brussels. Kazakhstan and Belarus have already signed up. And last month Armenia signaled interest in joining the Russian-led bloc - surprising EU negotiators who were trying to forge closer ties with Yerevan.
In early December, Ukrainians turned out in the hundreds of thousands to demand that the president resign, supported by former boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko and others.
The protests teetered on the edge of violence and petered out, as there were minor skirmishes with riot police, but no major crackdowns, like those seen in Cairo in recent months. The demonstrations began again this weekend, despite the bitter Ukrainian cold, in response (ironically) to the new strict protest ban, which essentially criminalizes anti-government rallies. Ukrainian leaders are responding with anger to the renewed demonstrations — which continue on Wednesday — blaming them on "terrorists," per Reuters:
Ukraine's prime minister said on Wednesday that anti-government protests had brought "terrorists" onto the streets of Kiev and pledged to punish all "criminal action," even as protesters confronted police near government headquarters. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, speaking to his cabinet, took a tough line on the protesters, who on Wednesday massed anew in their hundreds.
The U.S. embassy, however, revoked the visas of several officials linked with police violence in a move that shows Washington is critical of how Ukraine is handling the situation. Azarov's response to the latest incident, that the protesters "are criminals who must answer for their action," does not suggest that government is planning on backing down in the near future.
The mass demonstrations are expected to continue throughout the day on Wednesday, and we'll be keeping an eye out for new developments.