What began as a mostly peaceful street protest against the government’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU back in November 2013 has now spiraled into clashes with riot police and the occupation of government buildings, with several protesters confirmed dead and reports of police firing live ammunition.
Despite the resignation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, protests in the country have continued. The opposition refused an offer from President Viktor Yanukovych to participate in government, and demonstrations are now spreading to cities in the East of the country where Mr Yanukovych has traditionally had more support.
During the European Greens’ online debate we covered yesterday, we heard from Rebecca Harms, Co-Chair of the Greens group in the European Parliament, who is visiting Kiev today as part of the European Parliament delegation to the country. She was asked about the protests and how the EU should respond:
The fight of the citizens of Ukraine is [over the fact that] this state doesn’t function for the betterment of its citizens, so they are really fed up here with the corruption and the fact there is not at all the rule of law, and Yanukovich stands for all the failures of the political system. The EU, at the same time, is the symbol for a better life for the citizens…
I think the European Union should not pretend that we are not on one side of the discussion, because the EU here represents the hopes and objectives that the people are fighting for. But, having said this, I’m sure that the best way to come out of all these negative developments, with people dying on the streets, is for everyone to come back to the table. But I think Mr Klitschko and the opposition leaders are right putting the focus on new elections.
But what can the EU actually do to improve the situation in Ukraine? We had a comment sent in from Paula arguing that Ukraine needs support, not just words. She believed that it was time for the EU to implement economic sanctions against Ukraine in order to put pressure on Yanukovych.
Currently, an “overwhelming majority” of EU countries (with the apparent exception of Lithuania) believe it it too early to discuss economic sanctions. But does the European Parliament agree?
Earlier this morning, we spoke to Marek Siwiec, a Polish MEP with the Social Democrats and another member of the EU-Ukraine delegation of the European Parliament. How would he respond to Paula’s suggestion?
I would say to Paula, listen, sanctions are effective only as long as they aren’t implemented. We have a number of cases where if sanctions are in place there is no dialogue and no talks and no positive solution. I think, at this stage, we shouldn’t implement sanctions. There are many reasons for that, but as long as people are still discussing and there is not total violence being used by either side as a solution I think we shouldn’t implement any sanctions at this stage.
On the other side of the debate, we had a comment from Achilles from Greece who argued that the EU should “mind its own business” in Ukraine unless it wants the situation to spiral out of control as in Syria. How would Siwiec respond?
I would say, Achilles, that in every country, including Greece, the conflicts from the street sooner or later will make it into the parliament where they will be discussed peacefully. But this is not the case in Ukraine. Instead of political discussion or dialogue in parliament, we have fighting in the streets, and on the one side you have police, whilst on the other side you have opposition leaders who are members of parliament! I think this shows how weak democracy is in Ukraine. This is one of the issues which should be seriously discussed.
We also had a comment from Karel from Germany, who argued that the protests had been “overhyped” by the media in Europe. Karel argued there is no majority in Ukraine in favour of EU membership, and many people want stronger relations with Russia. What would Siwiec say?
I would say we have a split of about 50-50, but nobody knows exactly what the figures are. I think the majority are for European integration, but it doesn’t matter what is the balance; in a democracy, the majority should respect the opinion of the minority. It doesn’t matter what decision was taken about the Association Agreement, it should have been explained clearly why this happened and what was the reasoning and figures behind the decision. This didn’t happen, and that’s why we have people on the street.
Finally, we had a comment sent in by Jorge, who pointed out that there have also been riots and street protests in Spain this month against austerity. However, he argues that whereas “our media are calling the Ukranians heroes, the [Spanish] protesters are called terrorists”. How is the situation in Ukraine different?
I would say the situation in Ukraine is unlike anything happening in the EU. We have had the central square blockaded for two months and public buildings being occupied. The situation is very serious, it’s very dangerous, and I’m very scared that one stupid gesture from any side could lead to a new Tiananmen Square.
How should the European Union react to the escalating situation in Ukraine? Is it time to discuss economic sanctions? Is the EU the symbol for a better life for the citizens of Ukraine, or should it “mind its own business” and stop interfering? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.