Ukraine Protests Go Deeper Than Trade Agreement

Nine years ago, I watched a sea of orange grow across Maidan Nezalezhnosti on CNN. As I write this, and Mustafa Nayyem's video feeds are playing in the background, showing thousands of Ukrainians again fighting for a better country. Protestors were clashing with police at around 3:30 a.m. local time. Everyday, thousands are on the streets, braving the perennially cold winter and the increasingly unpredictable Berkut (Ukraine's special riot police).

EuroMaidan, the movement that has taken over Kyiv and drawn support from around the world, officially began after Viktor Yanukovych walked away from the European Union Association Agreement. Originally two separate protests, the groups merged when major opposition parties took down their flags to demonstrate unity. The protests grew exponentially after Berkut violently cleared protestors from the Maidan for the stated purpose of setting up the city's Christmas tree on November 30. The uncompleted metal frame of the tree has since been decorated by protestors with Ukrainian and EU flags. Ukrainians seeing bloody, beaten students and journalists running to the safety of St. Michael's turned out in an estimated 700,000 person protest to the streets on December 1. During the week, thousands have been camping out on the city center with tents, occupying a number of government buildings, and sharing songs and food. This past weekend, even more protestors flooded Kyiv -- with estimates topping one million -- as snow began falling.

On December 9 and in the early hours of the 10, the Ukrainian government became more aggressive. Many Ukrainian news websites were down for portions of the day and without a live video feed and a comprehension of Ukrainian and Russian, it was difficult to know exactly what is happening. The offices of Batkivshchina (Батьківщина), Yulia Tymoshenko's party and a relatively strong opposition power in Ukraine, were raided with many computers and servers taken by police. Portions of the city are blocked by Berkut, others by protestors, and tents seem to have been damaged, potentially by tytushky. There are rumors of undercover police being aggressive and there are photos of more injured protestors, but Ukrainians have not retreated.

Trade agreements do not bring one million people to Kyiv in the winter to risk harm, however. They do not keep thousands camping in tents in the snow. EuroMaidan has become much more than the Association Agreement, more than the attacks by police two weeks ago, more than the imprisonment of Yulia Tymoshenko, more than the suppression of the media, more than the elections.

In 2011, I moved to Ukraine to research post-Orange Revolution civil society. Though fragmented and often fighting for limited resources, the activists whom I met at protests and conferences and in classrooms and coffee shops are incredible. They have also been working to create the country they deserve for many years -- many before the first orange flags flew in 2004. Though many had told me that Ukrainians had protest fatigue and were apathetic before I left, I saw a very different picture and was in constant awe of their individual dedication to making Ukraine the country they thought it should be. And contrary to the representation in many Russian media sources of Western interference in Ukraine or gross miscalculations of size of protests, I can confidently say that the people who have been standing and marching for weeks are truly Ukrainian and truly believe that they deserve better than the status quo.

I cannot predict with any level of certainty what will happen in the coming days or weeks in Kyiv. Far more educated people than I have made their predictions of peaceful ends and continued violence and of no net change. There are infinite factors that can change the trajectory of EuroMaidan and it would take books to cover everything sufficiently. What I can posit about the future of Ukraine, however, is that the story is not over. Ukrainians are tenacious. After one of the most tumultuous days of the protest, people in Kyiv were gleefully dancing in the streets at 5 a.m. when the temperature was 19F and snow was falling.

While the sea of people was smaller last night and there was no orange hue of nine years ago, the new tide will come in again tomorrow and each day move toward a more democratic Ukraine.