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Is Ukraine's unrest a new Orange Revolution in the making? (+video)

Despite parallels to 2004's peaceful democratic revolution, the current upheaval in Kiev is unlikely to settle the EU-Russia tug-of-war over Ukraine.

By Monika RębałaContributor, Michał KacewiczContributor / December 3, 2013

The Ukrainian national flag waves as protesters rally at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Tuesday, Dec. 3. Ukraine’s opposition failed to force out the government with a no-confidence vote in parliament, leaving the country’s high political tensions unresolved, and with thousands of people demonstrating on the streets of the capital.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP

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Warsaw; and Kiev, Ukraine

As protesters dig in to Kiev's Independence Square, establishing barricades of cars, bringing in television monitors, and erecting a small tent city in the heart of Ukraine's pro-European Union demonstrations, there is much talk of forcing the government to change – indeed, of revolution.

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With Ukraine's president out of the country and his opponents still boiling with anger, the country's political tensions appeared mired in a standoff as large protest rallies showed no sign of letting up. The opposition lost its attempt to topple the government by parliamentary means when a vote of no-confidence they called failed by a sizeable margin. Protest leaders, however disappointed, vowed to continue their demonstrations. Soon after the vote, about 5,000 protesters gathered outside the presidential administration building, then moved to the capital's central Independence Square, where the crowd grew to more than 10,000, according to police estimates. The opposition called for the parliamentary vote in protest both of President Viktor Yanukovych's shelving of a long-anticipated agreement to deepen political and economic ties with the European Union, and the violent tactics used by police to disperse demonstrators protesting that decision.

"There is no way back," says Volodymyr Sherstiuk of the Ukrainian folk-rock group Kozak System, one of several bands playing on the scene. “People are united and will stay here as long as they have to."

But despite the transformation over the weekend – from simple protest against the government's decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU last week, to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians calling for the government and president to step down – experts say that current events in Ukraine are not a replay of Ukraine's Orange Revolution.

Though the protests have similarities to the 2004 demonstrations that knocked Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, their outcome is likely to be far less radical, as President Viktor Yanukovych tries to wait out protesters and thread the needle to placate both pro-European forces and Russia.

Revolutionary mood

The current protests are made up of young people who are too young to remember the Orange Revolution, and are still learning how to organize protests. But the 2004 revolution remains a touchstone for their efforts against the government.

“If we don't defeat them, we will have no future here,” says Oleg, one of the young activists at the square.

“I don't belong to any party, I came here to fight with police” in response to their weekend attack on protesters, he adds. “During the Orange Revolution it was different, then there was no aggression. Now people are very angry.”

That anger was fed by the Ukrainian opposition’s failed no-confidence vote earlier in the day, which protesters had hoped would oust Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet. But the opposition fell 40 votes short of the mark.

“We've stood here in freezing weather for a few days, and politicians, as usual, let us down,” says Tatiana Marchenk, a student in Kiev.

A different Ukraine

But despite the mood on the streets, analysts say, these protests will not follow the same arc as 2004.

“It's not a second Orange Revolution,” says Pawel Kowal, a chairman of the European Parliament delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee. "It's hard to compare protests in 2004 with what is happening today at [Independence Square] in Kiev."

“The Orange Revolution was a middle-class revolution, was organized by the opposition, and had strong leaders: Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko. Today, those on the streets are mainly young people and students who gathered there spontaneously to protest against Yanukovych and his government,” Mr. Kowal adds.

At the same time, Mr. Yanukovych's political support among Ukraine's southern and eastern regions, which are more pro-Russia, may be ebbing. Though the country's Russian-speaking regions are unhappy about integration with the EU, those regions are not coming out for Yanukovych the way they did during the Orange Revolution.

“Yanukovych is losing active support – during the Orange Revolution we saw many people on the streets in the eastern part of the country," particularly in his native, industrial region of Donetsk,” says Ievgen Vorobiov, a Ukrainian analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw." But today, this is a very rare sight."

“Many people are disappointed with him," says Rostyslav Kramar, a political analyst at the University of Warsaw and a Ukrainian. "He promised a lot but economic and social conditions didn't improve during his presidency, thousands or even millions of Ukrainians have been forced to look for jobs abroad.”

Even Yanukovych's party is not a monolith now – a few people left the party since the protests began. The governor of Donetsk has backed protesters in Kiev. And students from Donetsk wrote a public letter in the Ukrainian language to students in Lviv – a major city in pro-EU western Ukraine – in which they proclaimed their desire to walk through the EU's doors with their western peers. These kind of gestures would have been hard to imagine during the Orange Revolution, says Dr. Kramar.

Yanukovych's next move

The EU has emphasized that its door remains open to Ukraine, and that Yanukovych is welcome to sign the agreement at a planned EU-Ukraine summit in the spring. But “he has to act more quickly, if he wants to be ready on time," warns Kowal. "In the latter half of the next year it will be too late, because we will have elections for the European Parliament" – pulling the EU's focus away from Ukraine – "and in 2015 Ukrainians will choose a new president,” further delaying a deal.

Kramar says the most likely scenario is that Yanukovych will stay in power, but his prime minister, Mr. Azorov, will be forced to resign. “Yanukovych's main goal is to win elections in 2015. He will do everything to achieve this goal, even sacrifice his ministers and impose Russian standards in Ukraine, if that will help him to win an electoral contest.”

Yanukovych has already started his campaign, Mr. Vorobiov says, pointing to the president's decision to travel to China today despite the situation in Kiev. "He wants to show that nothing serious is really happening and everything is under control.”

Kramar thinks that in the coming months the protests in Ukraine will lose momentum. “People can't protest on the street forever, the winter is coming and so are the holidays. I'm afraid that the opposition will lose some power and vigor, and Yanukovych will play for time. He won't impose any radical changes and reforms in the country.”

And Yanukovych will likely try to keep his options open with both the EU and Russia, Vorobiov adds. “Yanukovych will go to Brussels soon and probably promise to sign some kind of agreement with the EU to neutralize the opposition," and “later he will visit Moscow and try to negotiate better trade arrangements with Putin.”

Escalation?

And while some protesters have taken to calling the president "bloody Viktor" after the police's violent attacks over the weekend, experts say that it doesn't seem that Yanukovych will decide to use force against protesters again.

But still, they note, there is cause for concern.

“It seems like [Yanukovych] looks through Eastern not Western politician's glasses now,” says Kramar. “If we look at Russia or other countries in the region, military solution is not something unusual.”

“It is a bad sign that many policemen from the Berkut special unit are very close to the square,” adds Vorobiov. Anti-government groups accuse the Berkut riot police of using intimidation to suppress protests.

But if Yanukovych uses force, he will be totally isolated in the West and will have no other choice than become a vassal of Moscow.

“People are determined to fight, it doesn't look like they will give up easily,” says Kramar. “Everything depends on a political solution being worked out in the coming days. If politicians don't satisfy the protesters, I would not rule out a military solution.” 

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