High stakes in Ukraine
To understand what's happening, it's useful have some background on the country. Until the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine had been under Russian rule (Tsarist until 1917, Soviet thereafter) for centuries. Culturally, Ukraine and Russia are very similar, but many Ukrainians do not view their giant cousin as a friend; millions of Ukrainians died under the brutal repression and collectivization famines under Stalin. Today Ukraine is a bilingual country, with about 60% of the population speaking Ukrainian and 100% speaking Russian.
Recently Ukraine has been negotiating an "association agreement" with the European Union, a deal strongly opposed by the Putin regime in Russia; Putin is trying to draw Ukraine into Russia's own power bloc, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine is by far the most important of the non-Russian states formerly part of the USSR (its population is about one-third as large as Russia's); drawing it into the Russian bloc would practically achieve Putin's goal of reconstituting the USSR. At the last minute, Yanukovych changed his mind and refused to sign the EU agreement. This led to protests by pro-Western Ukrainians who suspected him of bowing to Russian pressure, and want to safeguard the agreement which would strengthen Ukraine's status as a European democracy.
These protests started small, however. What precipitated the real explosion was an incident Saturday, when riot police brutally cleared away an encampment of demonstrators in Independence Square, Kiev's public center. Pro-Western Ukrainians fear that being dragged into the Russian bloc would doom their democracy; Russia is well on the way to becoming a police state and Belarus is a flat-out dictatorship. Saturday's thuggery confirmed their fears that Yanukovych is following Putin's example -- and the country erupted.
The Orange Revolution's photogenic leader Yulia Tymoshenko isn't involved this time; she's in prison on trumped-up charges (another sign of the way the Yanukovych government is heading). The politician most associated with the new rising, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, is at least a genuine outsider to the discredited establishment.
It's unclear what the outcome will be; the 2009 uprising in Iran was even larger than this, but failed to bring down that regime. The stakes are very high, though. It's not in the West's interest to see Putin's empire strengthened as massively as the addition of Ukraine would accomplish. And a successful popular rising and repudiation of authoritarian rule in Ukraine would provide an example and inspiration to the Russian people themselves -- something which is no doubt an increasing concern for Putin.
On a personal note, the image at the top of this post (click to enlarge) brings back a lot of memories -- Independence Square has not changed very much since I was there in 2007. If only I could be there now!