For the last two weeks Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine has been the stronghold of anti-government protests; thousands have gathered in temperatures as low as minus fifteen to express their dissatisfaction with the President Viktor Yanukovych. Lined with makeshift tents and warmed by log fires and soup kitchens, volunteers distribute food to the demonstrators, whilst opposition leaders air their views on a makeshift stage.
Ukrainians poured into the capital in protest after Yanukovych withdrew from signing an integration agreement with the EU last month; a deal that would have ushered in closer trade and political ties for the former Soviet state with Europe. Instead the President is set to press ahead with closer links to Russia, who has offered aid and cheaper gas in exchange for Kiev dropping its deal with the EU.
Whilst Yanukovych says that at $820 million the EU’s loan is not enough to address Ukraine’s severe economic woes, protestors say they want to overturn his decision to cosy up to Russia, at the expense of what the European Union could bring.
For many Ukrainians the prospect of moving closer to the EU brings with it the promise of a better future, the rule of law and freedom for innocent people who have been arrested. As a condition to signing the agreement, the EU has said Ukraine must embrace selective justice which would mean releasing former Prime Minister and rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been detained for the last two years for ‘abuse of power,’ a process widely considered by opposition groups as politically motivated.
The protests aren’t all soup kitchens and log fires. On Wednesday morning riot police stormed Independence Square to force the demonstrators out, dismantling the barricades put in place to keep them out. Black-helmeted riot police fought against orange-helmeted protestors, students were beaten and imprisoned on overblown charges, whilst demonstrators attempted to push police back by firing icy water from hoses.
Like in Egypt, where the military backed government often use the façade of ‘restoring order’ back to Cairo’s streets as a pretext for passing draconian laws (like the recent controversial assembly bill) or killing and injuring demonstrators, Ukrainian interior ministry officials have said that they stormed the protest to make way for traffic.
On Wednesday morning US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed revulsion at how the Ukrainian police had behaved: “(Washington) expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity,” he said. “This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy… the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better,” he said. Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine Geofrey R Pyatt glided between protestors in the square, handing out biscuits and sandwiches in solidarity and sympathy.
Now cast your mind back to the ousting of Mohammed Morsi on 3 July, and the sit-ins demanding his reinstatement which filled En Nahda and Rabia Adawiya Squares in the months that followed. In August Morsi supporters were to meet an appalling fate when Egyptian police ‘cleared’ the squares, setting fire to tents where protestors were sleeping, launching tear gas and firing on them, killing hundreds and injuring scores more. Nutland and her sandwiches were nowhere to be seen then.
In fact, following these events the US attracted international condemnation for repeatedly sidestepping the labelling of Morsi’s ouster a coup, an admission which would mean withdrawing the $1.3 billion of military aid wired to Egypt every year. Their refusal to make a stand on this issue sent a huge signal to Egypt, and the international community, about whose side the White House were on.
At the time of the massacre, Kerry said that the violence had “dealt a serious blow to political reconciliation efforts between the military-backed interim government and Morsi’s supporters.” But three months later he declared the military had been “restoring democracy” when it overthrew Mohammed Morsi. He went on to claim that the revolution in Egypt had been stolen, “by the one single most organised entity in the state, which was the Brotherhood.”
His comments have been interpreted as an attempt to forge relations with the interim, military backed government in Egypt. Amongst other things, the west is looking for economic and regional stability to secure their own interests there. When it comes to Ukraine they seem to be looking to ‘win’ the country over Russia. Therefore it makes sense to take the side of the protestors.
Interestingly, Kerry’s Muslim Brotherhood stolen revolution comments closely followed a visit by Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to Cairo in November, who came with the promise of deeper ties between the two countries; in particular a possible arms deal was on the table.
Political allegiances aside, Washington has long protected the lives of Americans and Europeans – or whoever looks like them – whilst the lives of Arabs and Muslims are worth less; one only needs to look at the relentless CIA drone strikes inflicted on Pakistan and Yemen, which regularly kill innocent civilians and children, as another example of this. If nothing else, the current stand-off in Kiev underscores the reality that western support for protestors anywhere doesn’t depend on the rule of law but on what their government has to offer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.