The protest started as a gathering of a few thousand students demanding that Ukraine sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, after the government had announced that work had been suspended on this agreement just before the Vilnius Summit of November 28–29, 2013.
For Ukraine, signing the Association Agreement would have marked a decisive step away from the centuries-long orientation toward Russia and the east, first consummated in the seventeenth century when the Ukrainian Cossack leaders signed a treaty with the czar of Muscovy. The eastern part of Ukraine was ruled by Russia for most of that time until independence, while the western part spent many years governed variously from Vienna or Warsaw as part of the Austrian Empire or Poland. The disparate lands where Ukrainians lived were finally united under Soviet rule after 1945, but the tensions between west and east remained.
As both sides hardened their positions, the ultimate outcome of the standoff in Ukraine became hard to predict. But one thing was clear: the opposition, which before was primarily electoral and procedural, had changed into something not seen before in Ukraine or its political neighborhood.
The Euromaidan was an encampment and daily gathering site for thousands of people in downtown Kyiv that swelled to hundreds of thousands of bodies on weekends, through weeks of frozen days and nights, from November into the new year. The student organizers’ rejection of political party symbols was the first sign that this was not a second coming of the Orange Revolution. This generation of young Ukrainians is more hardheaded and clear-sighted about the future than their predecessors. Even though the opposition political leaders put themselves at the head of the movement, there was a distinct sense that they had not planned for such an uprising and were catching up with the people already on the streets.
There were different sectors of the square—the political party sector, the students, the non-political and civic sectors; the tents that sprung up bore the names of the towns, cities, and regions where the people came from. Everywhere there was a vague pall of smoke from the many wood fires that burned to keep people warm. Food and hot tea were prepared by volunteers—many of them middle-class citizens who couldn’t be there full-time but wanted to contribute to the effort. Doctors were on hand to provide treatment for those who became ill.
There were tents and field kitchens, and facilities for the people who were not merely episodically protesting but living there full-time. The crowds came in during the day and stayed until late into the night, even though the main roads were blocked by barricades. There was “face control” by the demonstrators at each access point, at which volunteers with homemade security badges asked anyone wearing a scarf to remove it so that their identity would be visible and challenged possible provocateurs who might cause violence that would provide the justification for a massive crackdown.
Whether all of these aspirations will be fulfilled remains to be seen. But it seems clear that the civic and political actors in this process have had an experience that can only be called mind-altering. The Euromaidan has brought the opposition leaders closer to average citizens than they have ever been. The vision of a Ukraine in Europe has not only become something to fight for, but also something to live for, in a daily struggle against illegitimate authority that is likely to build even when it is not in the headlines of the international press. [Official Website]