How Ukraine’s Thuggishness Provides Oxygen for the Protests

Jan 23, 2014 at 12:53 PM ET

At least five protesters have been killed in clashes with police in Ukraine in a recent spike in violence in the two-month demonstrations. Official reports say more than 150 people have been injured since Jan. 19, and last night 75 were detained for their involvement in riots in downtown Kiev. Local news outlets say as many as eight people may have been killed.

This surge in bloodshed, which comes just days after the Ukrainian parliament passed harsh authoritarian laws, is the latest chapter in the rise and fall of Euromaidan, a movement that began on Nov. 21. The number of demonstrators has swelled and dwindled over the course of the winter, depending on the government’s actions and policies. One example: The 1984-style text messages that the government has been sending directly to protesters’ phones in the last few days haven’t gone over well: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.”

A timeline of key events:

Two big developments in Euromaidan this week: Clashes are now taking place during the day, rather than at night, which is what happened in December 2013 with the first escalation of violence. That suggests protesters aren’t going home.

The other is that the shooting deaths of protesters, confirmed by Ukraine’s prosecutor general—and other reports of kidnappings and fatal beatings now surfacing—are likely to further enrage the activists. Tracking the number of protesters, we see that when the government or police get heavy-handed (beating protesters, beating a journalist, passing strict new laws, etc.), Euromaidan literally rises up to fight back.

That said, there are reports that this week’s escalation isn’t just coming from the original, pro-European integration Euromaidan protesters, but rather from a right-wing group taking over the front lines.

President Yanukovich met yesterday with opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, who himself was harassed at protests earlier this week:

The protester deaths have also cast a shadow over Davos, where the World Economic Forum with many of the world’s rich and powerful elite is currently taking place. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was disinvited from the forum yesterday when news of the deaths broke, and then was banned from Davos entirely. The United States has revoked the visas of some Ukrainian officials in response to their endorsements of police brutality, and more sanctions are expected.

It’s political drama for sure, but nothing compared with what’s going on on the ground in Kiev. Check out this “Angry Berkut” video, an Angry Birds-style tribute to the Ukrainian riot police.

We checked to see if Twitter activity correlated with activity on the ground in Kiev. The peaks and valleys of online discussion followed the government’s actions and protesters’ reactions fairly closely. Using the #Euromaidan hashtag in English, Ukrainian and Russian, the following tweets were the most popular on days when hundreds of thousands of tweets about the Ukrainian demonstrations were posted.

Dec. 1: 157,000 tweets

Dec. 9: 103,000 tweets

Dec. 11: 157,000 tweets

Jan. 19: 123,000 tweets

Jan. 22: more than 200,000 tweets (the biggest spike)

Get live updates of the continuing protests, including a livestream, here.