In a Cold War-style competition between the U.S. and Russia, Ukraine’s ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych insinuates that the West, for now, holds the upper hand. Yet saying so could fuel the Russian fire to turn back the current state of affairs.

The conflict began when Yanukovych refused to sign a free-trade agreement between Ukraine and the E.U., instead leaning on inevitable trade ties with its Russian counterpart to the East. Many Ukrainians did not see the appeal. On February 21, in response to violent protests and backlash, Yanukovych gave up responsibility for his country.

Purporting to support a peaceful transition in Ukraine, President Barack Obama and senior officials discussed the situation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aides. The main effort emphasized a multibillion-dollar aid package for Ukraine with the International Monetary Fund. Various governments in the European Union support this endeavor, or at least intend to contribute economically to peace in Ukraine.

Ultimately, the goal is to keep Russia from sending troops into the country. Interference by Russia in order to restore a pro-Russian government in Ukraine would be detrimental to all parties involved. United States national security advisor Susan Rice emphasized on an episode of Meet the Press that Russian interference “would be a grave mistake.” Likewise, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed the importance of persuading “Russia that this need not be a zero sum game.”

The U.S. and Russia, according to Rice, share hopes for a unified, independent Ukraine that is capable of exercising freedom amongst its people. Obama and Putin jointly aim to see the agreement of February 21 carried out in peaceful terms. Constitutional reforms, near-term elections and a government to bring together the unified desires of the Ukrainian people shall be implemented in due process. These efforts shall reflect “the will of the Ukrainian people and the interests of the United States and Europe,” said Rice.

While Rice did not mention Russian interests, one might hope that continued violence is not among them. Perhaps diplomacy can win this war.

– Jaclyn Stutz 

Sources: Businessweek, Foreign Policy, New York Times, Wall Street Journal
Photo: BASIC

Gunshots. Rifles. Rocks. Molotov Cocktails. The state of political unrest in Ukraine continues unabated.

Protestors have long since expressed discontent with President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime since economically tying Ukraine to Russia in lieu of the European Union.

Closer ties to the European Union would have boosted the Ukrainian economy as well as being welcomed into the E.U. fold. On the other hand, Russia threatened economic sanctions and a rise in oil prices. In the end, Yanukovych chose the former head of the Soviet state. As a result, Ukranians took to the streets in protest. For the past three months, protesters and Kiev police forces have clashed in the streets of Independence Square.

The narrative turned ever darker once Yanukovych passed the anti-protest law, barring demonstrations unless a permit is obtained from local police.

The law was eventually repealed, but the damage was done. Discontent spiraled further when opposing forces attempted to draw power from the presidency towards the parliament.

The opposition forces, among them led by the Ukranian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, then wanted tangible reforms that would come in the form of constitutional amendments. Yanukovych, with pressure mounting on his presidency, offered opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk the post of prime minister as well as the power to dismiss the parliament.

These concessions, however, proved futile. Violence erupted on February 18, with 28 individual deaths as a result. A truce soon followed, but brutality reignited on two days later; that day’s conflicts yielded at least 100 deaths.

An emergency triage focalized at the Hotel Ukraine where numerous wounded were taken. The Ukranian military has yet to take action, but tensions are high. Foreign leaders have reacted by proposing sanctions. The E.U. has proposed freezing the assets of key Ukranians, around 20 involved.

Since the onset of the drama, Ukraine has been at the crossroads of Western powers and the eastern dominating Russia. The following steps rests on Yanukovych, but it appears the president is even losing influence in parliament.

Yanukovych’s party, Party of Regions, even sided with those voting against the president in a recent ruling for anti-terrorist measures. Regardless of the outcome, human lives have been split. Whether more violence is to come remains to be seen.

Miles Abadilla

Sources: CNN, The Globe and Mail, CNN, Kyiv Post
Photo: BBC

After nearly two months of protest movements ranging across cities of Ukraine, protesters have made landmark achievements towards a government void of corruption.

The social turmoil began when President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a trade deal with the European Union and went on to receive a $15 billion bailout from Russia. However, anti-protest legislation introduced two weeks ago are what caused the protests to magnify and eventually turn violent.

Since then, opposition movements have placed significant political pressure on Ukrainian leaders. As of January 18, controversial anti-protest laws have been repealed and the very unpopular Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned from office.

Azarov’s resignation followed President Yanukovych offering of the Prime Minister job and other senior positions to opposition leaders. The opposition ended up rejecting the deal, asserting that they do not plan on letting up. They continue to press for new and early elections and there are still many negotiations to be made between the Ukrainian government and opposition.

So far, the opposition movements are calling for, “an end to government corruption, freedom for political prisoners and for Ukraine to be aligned with the European Union and not Russia.”

The Ukrainian government also recently signed in a conditional amnesty law for captured activists in which protesters would be given at 15-day deadline to leave the government buildings that are occupied. This also comes after recently allegations of the Ukrainian government for abducting and torturing citizens, including the opposition activist, Dmytro Bulatov.

As the situation in Ukraine has already been established as a human rights nightmare, it is increasingly becoming one with more information on government allegations surfacing. The United Nations Human Rights office has also gotten involved by condemning the cases of torture and is now calling on the Ukraine government to further investigate the situation.

Although the opposition movements in Ukraine have gained significant ground with the resignation of Prime Minister Azarov, the repeal of anti-protest legislation and now with the law of amnesty for all of the political prisoners (as long as protesters vacate government buildings), they are still calling for new elections.

It is unclear at this point, how much further the tension between the Ukrainian government and opposition will last. However, on an international scale, people are weighing in to attempt to resolve the issue.

As a consistent critical of the Ukrainian government’s handling of the past two months, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated that, “Ukrainian president’s offers needed to improve if the opposition were to take them seriously.”

– Jugal Patel

Sources: BBC, BBC-2, Al Jazeera, Global News
Photo: Voice of America

Ukrainian Government
Following new legislation that outlawed the right of protest in Ukraine, people have taken to the streets in a display of anger and violence. The situation seems to have gotten out of hand for Ukrainian police and officials, as they are unable to peacefully control the protests. Resorting to brute force to hinder the people, the international community is beginning to call the situation a human rights violation for the people of Ukraine.

International leaders such as United States Vice President Joe Biden are stepping in to urge Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to resolve the issue peacefully. Biden also went on to state that relations between Ukraine and the U.S. may be hurt as a result of the Ukrainian government’s treatment of the issue. Unfortunately for Azarov, the people are calling for the resignation of Azarov as well as other government leaders.

Opposition and government leaders have met multiple times to try to reach agreements on the issue, but no progress has been made as of yet. After meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko states that the President disagreed to the demands of resignation for both he and his cabinet members. Nevertheless, Yanukovych is determined to continue negotiation talks to reach a resolution.

Recently, news sources in Ukraine reported Yanukovych “has promised a government reshuffle, an amnesty to detained activists and other concessions, after protests against his rule engulfed Ukraine.” However, opposition forces have denied Yanukovych’s offers and seek to continue protesting.

In the city of Lviv, hundreds of protestors gained control of regional governor Oleh Salo’s office and forced him to sign off a resignation letter. Opposition movements in various cities across Ukraine have also sought to gain control of regional government offices but have not been as successful.

Although negotiation talks have stalled, what is certain is that opposition forces are not expected to give in quietly to Yanukovych’s offerings. The protesters are calling for early elections to replace their government and until then, protests are expected to continue.

Jugal Patel

Sources: Voa News, CNN, FOX
Photo: Microsoft

At the end of November, an estimated 100,000 demonstrators rallied at Kiev Square in the Ukraine to protest President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision to reject long-planned trade agreements with the European Union.

Four years in the making, the trade agreements would have brought Ukraine within the EU’s trade bloc, a crucial step in obtaining EU membership. Such an agreement would have fostered Western political and economic sensibilities as well as making the International Monetary Fund available to the Ukraine. The EU is also in talks with Georgia and Moldova as part of its “Eastern Partnership” plan, a mission to bring in former Soviet Union countries into the EU, although Ukraine was seen as the most significant of all three.

For the moment, the agreements remain in purgatory and will most likely not come to pass. President Yanukovich continues to unsuccessfully assuage the EU and his constituents with grandiose talk of possible future trade agreements with the EU, but the public remains doubtful.

Other tenets of the agreement include the release of jailed Ukranian former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. According to the BBC, Tymoshenko was imprisoned in 2011 for seven years after being contentiously convicted of abusing power over a gas deal with Russia.

For now, Russia seems eager to fill in the gap the EU’s departure left behind. Fearing an Eastern spread of Western Civilization, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been urging Ukraine officials to reject trade agreements with the EU and instead consider a trade bloc with Eurasian countries.

Russia’s influence was a key factor in the Ukranian government’s decision to freeze the EU agreement, for both political and economic reasons. Much of Yanukovich’s voter base hails from the pro-Russia part of the country, an important consideration for the up-coming 2015 election, and the Ukraine may fear further trade restrictions from Russia such as its curb of gas in 2009.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine has had an unsteady relationship with democracy as wide-scale corruption remained a prevalent force in the country until 2004 when the Orange Revolution took place. The largest peaceful mass protest in the Ukraine of its kind until that time, the protesters secured the overturning of the results of a rigged presidential election. Their efforts established internationally monitored vote that ushered in a new reformist government.

Current protests are the largest in the country since the Orange Revolution, and continue to be supported on a mass scale, including three former presidents of the Ukraine.

Emily Bajet

Sources: NY Times 1, 2, BBC 1, 2, CIA
Photo: The Guardian

You have probably heard about the women who have been protesting, bare-breasted, all over Europe. They are FEMEN.

Started in Ukraine, the FEMEN movement describes itself as “the scandal famous organization of topless women activists, who defend with their breast sexual and social equality in the world.” With “Sextremism” as their motto, FEMEN activists clearly display their struggle: “Be FEMEN – means to mobilize every cell of your body on [sic] a relentless struggle against centuries of slavery of women!” Radical in their beliefs and actions, FEMEN activists depict themselves as “morally and physically fit soldiers, who every day make civil actions of the high [sic] degree of difficulty and provocativity [sic].”

Radical words require radical actions. Since 2010, FEMEN have become increasingly visible on the international political scene because of their turbulent interventions throughout Europe. FEMEN have been protesting intensively against sexism, homophobia, prostitution and religion. Using their bodies as their best weapons, FEMEN activists fight for women’s rights against dictates imposed by dictators, the church and the sex industry. “My Body, My Manifesto,” “Sextremism – FEMEN is the death of Patriarchy,” “I am Free” are some of the messages you can read on FEMEN activists’ breasts. Their protests incorporate political messages displayed on their bodies, enacting shocking scenes which gather attention and mobilization of greater numbers of people.

For instance, on July 3, three FEMEN activists demonstrated in front of the Elysee Palace, in Paris, in order to ask the French President to show solidarity with their imprisoned Tunisian fellow Amina. They were wearing barbed wired around their breasts and faces, lacerating their flesh as the police arrested them.

Banned from Ukraine after she denounced the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the Pussy Riot – a Russian female punk group that had organized a punk prayer at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior- Inna Shevchenko, one of the leading activists of the group, has been granted “political refugee” status in France.

The FEMEN ‘headquarters’ are now based in Paris, France. Recently, the creation of a new postage stamp in effigy of Marianne triggered political turmoil in France. Indeed, the Marianne depicted on the stamp is wearing a crown of flowers, symbol of the FEMEN activists. Inna Shevchenko provocatively commented “FEMEN is on [sic] French stamp. Now all homophobes, extremists, fascists will have to lick my ass when they want to send a letter.” Protest against the new French stamp has arisen, mostly because of the many Islamophobic comments of FEMEN activists.

FEMEN’s extreme actions and statements have been criticized by other feminists. Journalist Mona Chollet denounced the use of stereotyped young, skinny and beautiful women who display their bodies naked to fight for human rights, at the detriment of all those who do not fight naked and do not abide by the classic criteria of beauty and youth.

Lauren Yeh

Sources: Le Monde, FEMEN, L’Express
Photo: The Atlantic

Ukraine, “The Bread Basket of Europe,” a 233,000 square mile expanse of fertile steppe stretching from Poland and Romania in the West to Russia in the East.  Much like in Turkey, her southern neighbor across the Black Sea, Ukrainian culture combines elements of the Asiatic and the European into a Eurasian entity that is undoubtedly one of the most distinct in the world.  Even during the tyrannical rule of the Soviet Union, Ukraine retained the unique agricultural identity that defined it, consistently expressing an anti-regime, nationalistic fervor while making up for over a quarter of the USSR’s grain production.

Ukraine’s significance as the agricultural gold mine of Eastern Europe was the cornerstone of it’s economy for centuries, making it the most valuable territory to the former Soviet Union.  The strategic importance of Ukraine as a center of agricultural output is most notably evidenced by the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33, also known as the Holodomor (Голодомор). This great tragedy was deliberately created by Joseph Stalin to quell a strain of Ukrainian nationalism that had started to become active in the late 1920‘s.  The main thrust behind the designed famine, however, was Stalin’s desire to accelerate the industrialization of the Soviet empire by utilizing Ukraine’s enormous agrarian resources.

The famine was a result of the forced collectivization of Ukrainian farms by the government in which virtually all of the food produced on the collectives was seized by Soviet authorities and sold on the international market to raise the national income, leaving the Ukrainian locals with nothing to eat.  This collectivization was against the will of the Ukrainian “kulak” class of wealthy farmers who opposed Soviet rule and ran private farms for personal profit.  In devising this artificial famine, Stalin decimated the population of Ukraine and, through murder and banishment, eliminated the Kulak class, along with any rebellious sentiment represented by the Kulaks.

What Stalin did to the Ukrainians has been described by many historians as mass genocide.  Between 1932 and 1933, over seven million Ukrainians died of starvation.  Ukrainian famine survivor Miron Dolot, who was a child in Ukraine during the forced collectivization, recalls grisly scenes in which desperate villagers resorted to cannibalism and the consumption of rats to stay alive.   Stalin had reduced the Ukrainians to a condition of destitution that was beyond comprehension.  To the heartless dictator,  fast industrialization was the end goal, and any amount of life that stood in his way was expendable.

The Holodomor is a stain on the history of the former Soviet Union, and was only recently recognized by the Russian government.  To this day, the Ukrainian Famine is one of the only instances in history in which a dictator calculatedly reduced a contingent of his people to starvation and abject poverty.

– Josh Forgét

Sources: Execution by Hunger, Reflections on a Ravaged Century, CIA World Factbook
Photo: United Human Rights

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is a nonpolitical organization that provides aid to Jewish communities in distress across the globe. The institution was formed after the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to aid Jews in Europe who were displaced or negatively impacted by the war. Today, the Committee works in over 70 countries to provide humanitarian assistance to poor Jews.

Although the Committee is active in South America, Africa, and Asia, the organization focuses heavily on the disadvantaged Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This area includes Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as well as the Caucasus regions and the Central Asian Republics. The decentralization of power that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union precipitated the downfall of these nation’s economies, adversely affecting the large Jewish populations there. In Ukraine, the end of the USSR resulted in a catastrophic hyperinflation that pushed many Jewish families below the poverty line.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committees relief efforts in Ukraine are particularly impressive. Ukraine boasts the third largest Jewish community in Europe with almost 500,000 Jews in a population of 45.3 million. A section on Ukraine from the AJJDC website succinctly assesses the story of the Jews in Ukraine, stating, “Like much of former Soviet Jewry, Ukraine’s Jews have survived the pogroms and the Holocaust, and outlasted Communist Jewish oppression. Today, though the country is struggling with economic turmoil and aging infrastructure, its Jewish community is growing, working tirelessly to assist its needy and to foster leadership among its most dedicated.”

In effect, there is great hope for the Jewish poor in Ukraine. The AJJDC has made great strides by providing food, medicine, and other necessary commodities to struggling elderly Jews and undernourished children. The organization also runs day camps to involve Jews in cultural programs and religious festivities, recruiting younger Ukrainian Jews to foster similar programs in their localities. Ukraine is only one of many countries of the former Soviet Union, and the world, in which the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has made a lasting impact through community programs and humanitarian assistance.  This coupling has resulted in what the organization calls “a revitalization of Jewish life” and an optimistic future for the Jewish poor worldwide.

– Josh Forgét

Sources: AJJDC, The YIVO Encyclopedia
Sources: AJJDC

Ukraine Property Rights Borgen Project Edit
A project launched by the UNDP has both given poor Ukrainians access to legal aid and informed them of their property rights. Before the program was launched, millions of Ukrainians did not know their property rights. The government was inept at providing the information and knowledge to address these property right issues since some of them do not even own computers. The UNDP helped push the government to develop a pro-poor land property rights policy framework which included getting rid of fees to obtain legal documents of any kind.

Ivan Kalyta, a Ukrainian citizen, wanted to sell some of his land to raise the money to fix his home. When he discovered he would have to pay more than $500 in administrative fees to sell the land, he was quickly discouraged. Not only was Ivan not able to pay the fees, but he had no idea where to obtain the documents and legal aid necessary to sell his land.

To tackle the problem, UNDP advised Ukraine to adopt free legal aid services, which they did in 2011. According to a poll conducted by the Ukrainian Union of Lawyers, more than 24 percent of the population in Ukraine seeks free legal advice.

During the life of the project, 867 free legal aid providers were trained on land and property rights legislation and its application; 5,000 manuals and brochures on land and property rights were distributed, and over 180,000 people have received free legal advice.

The project also reaches out to the people who live in rural areas. Since most free legal aid centers are located in towns and cities, UNDP has funded a program that provides online and Skype consultations. The program runs through local libraries, and anyone needing help in a rural area need only go to the nearest library. This is what Ivan did and the program has helped him tremendously.

“The money I got from selling part of my land came in very handy,” says Ivan. “My roof is not leaking anymore. I also was able to put some money aside for medication. Life is so expensive here, I am glad it worked out.”

– Catherine Ulrich

Sources: UNDP, Global Property Guide, Legal Aid Reform
Photo: UNDP