Ukraine marks tenth anniversary of Euromaidan protests

Ukraine marks tenth anniversary of Euromaidan protests
Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity", which started ten years ago this week, crystallised Ukraine's nationhood and set it irrevocably in the EU camp. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews November 22, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has marked the tenth anniversary of the beginning of 2014 Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Maidan Revolution, describing it as the country’s “first counter-offensive.”

The revolution was started by protests, which began on November 21, 2013, in response to then-president Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of a political association and free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU while at a historic EU Vilnius summit in November 2013.

Everyone was on the edge of their seat as Yanukovych arrived and the EU top diplomats were sure that the boorish Ukrainian president was ready to sign off on the Association Agreement that would have cemented trade ties between the EU and Ukraine.

Tensions were high, as Russian President Vladimir Putin had also been wooing Yanukovych to join his rival Customs Union that was the precursor to the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Dominated by Russia, bringing Ukraine into the EEU fold would have given Putin’s trade club real clout, but without it, the Customs Union comprised Russia plus Belarus and a handful of Central Asian states.

Contrary to the popular narrative that has sprung up since about Yanukovych’s “pro-Russia” bias, in fact the Ukrainian president had been lobbying vigorously to move closer to the EU, as bne IntelliNews revealed in a cover story Wheels up. Yanukovych had hired the US political fixer Paul Manafort, who was later Donald Trump’s campaign manager, who toured Europe lobbying on Ukraine’s behalf, liberally spreading cash around to sway Brussels to favour Ukraine.

So why did Yanukovych ditch Europe at the last moment, literally walking out of the Vilnius summit and making a deal with Putin the next day? The answer is simple: money.

Yanukovych’s corruption was legendary. After he was toppled some six months later, protestors that broke into his palatial mansion found, amongst other things, a loaf of bread made out of solid gold (which has since been stolen).

As part of the EU deal, Yanukovych was asking for billions of dollars in cash from the EU to fund the all but bankrupt Ukraine. The EU was resisting handing over large amounts of cash to a man everyone knew would steal as much as he could. Post-Maidan investigations revealed that Yanukovych had stolen billions of dollars that has never been recovered.

In the lead-up to Vilnius an envoy was finally sent to Kyiv with an offer of $20bn in macroeconomic assistance which the diplomats believed would clinch the deal – hence the excitement at Vilnius – but the money came with a large packet of strings to ensure the cash didn’t disappear into a black hole.

But Brussels misjudged their man, while Putin had the full measure of him. The Kremlin offered a package of $15bn, with the first tranche of $3bn immediately – a debt that Ukraine’s government technically still owes Russia – with no strings attached at all.

Yanukovych flew to Vilnius to see if he could not cut the strings on the EU money, and had they agreed he would have gone with Brussels. But spending public money without accountability is anathema to the EU bureaucrats and they baulked at the suggestion.

The rest is history. Yanukovych took Putin’s deal. The Ukrainian people immediately took to the streets as they wanted to move closer to Europe. Originally a pro-EU demonstration, the EuroMaidan, as it came to be known, quickly morphed into a general anti-government protest as the years of outrage at the administration's blatant corruption poured forth, culminating in a march on Yanukovych’s palace in February 2014, where he packed as much as he could carry and fled for Rostov-on-Don in Russia, where he reportedly now lives.

The protests ended with bloodshed. More than 50 anti-government protesters were shot dead on Maidan Square, who are now known as the “Heavenly Hundred.” They are also considered by many to be the first domino in the chain of events that led to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas.

And controversy still surrounds the killings, as there were persistent reports that anti-government far-right protestors opened up on the other protestors from the upper floors of the Hotel Ukraine, which sits on top of the hill overlooking Maidan Square in central Kyiv, killing several people. bne IntelliNews reported what has come to be called Snipergate at the time, as well as the German ARD TCV station that did an extensive investigation into the reports; however, the English language press largely ignored the story. The subsequent administration of former President Petro Poroshenko dragged its feet over an investigation that never came to a conclusion. An investigation into the shootings was closed this year that convicted several Berkut officers of the special forces; but none of them were jailed, as the statute of limitations has expired.

The details of the protest have become fogged by time, but what is now known as the Revolution of Dignity has become lionised in domestic politics as the definitive event that crystallised Ukraine’s nationhood and placed it irrevocably in the EU camp.

Zelenskiy characterised the Euromaidan protests as the "first victory in today's war" in his address on the anniversary, linking them to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He emphasised the defence of democratic values as integral to safeguarding sovereignty and territorial integrity.

"When the civilised world begins to seek compromises with terrorists and make concessions to tyrants, then we all definitely lose," he said, calling for unity between Ukrainians and the rest of the planet.

Zelenskiy also highlighted the country’s progress towards full EU membership, which was one of the original goals of the Euromaidan protesters.

“Year after year, step by step, we do our best to ensure that our star shines in the circle of stars on the EU flag, which symbolises the unity of the peoples of Europe. The star of Ukraine,” he said.

Speaking via video message, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared that Kyiv is “closer than ever” to fulfilling the demands of Euromaidan protesters – to join the EU.

“Ten years of dignity. Ten years of pride. Ten years of striving for freedom. The cold November nights of Euromaidan have changed Europe forever. Even if back then Europe did not realise it, a whole nation took to the streets and spoke with one voice. You said: Ukraine belongs in Europe,” she said. “The future of Ukraine is in the European Union. The future that the Maidan fought for, has finally just begun.”