In the city of Dnipropetrovsk, eastern Ukraine, a small group of demonstrators huddle round to listen to one of their speakers. He’s reading the resolution passed by close to a hundred thousand of their fellow Ukrainians during an enormous rally in the capital on Sunday.
It’s dark, and freezing cold. The organisers have put up tents and hung banners. They’re protesting the government’s decision to abandon an Association Agreement with the EU, which would have brought Ukraine into the European fold with a comprehensive free trade treaty and greater political integration. A number of policemen stand around, watching wistfully.
Suddenly, thirty athletic men in masks and leather jackets descend on the demonstration. They tear down the tents and banners. They assault the speaker and anyone that gets in their way, raining punches and kicks down on protesters they have already knocked over. Equally suddenly, the police are nowhere to be seen. The hooligans continue their dirty work for several minutes before fleeing.
Dnipropetrovsk is Ukraine’s fourth largest city with a population of just over a million. It is a heavy industry powerhouse, manufacturing aircraft, tractors and refrigerators. Most of these will be sold to Russia, still Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Appalled by the prospect of ceding influence over its former Soviet satellite to Europe, Russia has threatened a trade blockade of Ukraine if it decides to sign the agreement.
So for Ukraine’s eastern businessmen, European integration no longer means gaining a new market, but losing its most important one. And it is these businessmen, with their multi-million dollar fortunes, that hold sway over a government ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world. Indeed, in many cases these businessmen actually are the government. Little wonder then that a suspiciously well-organised gang of thugs could break up a pro-Europe rally under the very noses of the police.
For the pro-European demonstrators attacked in Dnipropetrovsk, and the tens of thousands across the country that have braved rain, snow and tear gas everyday this week, Europe is much more than just a market. It means an official commitment to democracy and human rights reform. It means putting a stop to the government’s gradual backslide towards authoritarianism.
In the run up to Sunday’s summit at Vilnius, where Ukraine had been expected to sign the Association Agreement, a number of major media outlets have changed hands, and editors and high-profile journalists suddenly sacked. Media watchdogs warn that this is part of a concerted campaign to stifle free speech before Presidential elections in 2015.
Earlier this month Ukraine’s East European Petrol and Energy company purchased Ukrainian Media Holdings, which owns some 50 internet, television and radio brands, in a reported $340 million dollar deal. Soon afterwards there was a mass exodus of editors and journalists from two of their major publications, previously renowned for exposing corruption and criticizing government.
According to The Global Post, journalists from one of the publications, Forbes Ukraine, were told they could no longer pursue stories about lawmakers from Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions.
Unlike his less subtle neighbours in Belarus and Azerbaijan, President Yanukovych and his businessman backers have refrained from clamping down on dissent in a brutal and obvious fashion. Rather than banning pro-European demonstrations from Maidan, Kiev’s main square and birthplace of the 2004 Orange Revolution, they build an enormous Christmas tree and an ice rink there. Rather than shut down media outlets promoting a point of view they disagree with, they buy them.
But this will only last as long as Yanukovych still wants to keep the door to Europe open. If that door is shut, we can expect to see far less restraint. And if it is shut during the summit at Vilnius on Friday, it may well be that this weekend’s demonstrations are not so peaceful.