By Tobias Van Assche, Information Specialist at the U.S. Mission to the EU
On Tuesday, May 24, The United States Mission to the European Union (USEU), together with the Ukrainian Permanent Representation to the European Union, and the European Parliament, hosted a screening of the Academy Award nominated documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015)” about the large-scale Euromaidan protests against then-President Yanukovych in Kiev during the winter of 2013-2014. Some 200 senior diplomats, European politicians, members of the policy community, and press attended the event held in the regal Bozar theater in the center of Brussels, where two years earlier, President Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address following Russia’s occupation of Crimea (see transcript). After welcome remarks by Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Andrej Plenkovic and Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister for European And Euro-Atlantic Integration, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Winter on Fire director Evgeny Afineevsky introduced his documentary with a moving speech on the strength and conviction of the protestors who stood up for their beliefs. After the screening–which received a standing ovation–Afineevsky responded to questions from the audience.
Winter on Fire follows the 93-day-long student led protests from its early stages in November 2013 to its conclusion in the end of February 2014. People initially gathered on the Maidan square to call for more European integration, following the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend preparation for the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association agreement, in order to seek closer relations with Russia. The documentary shows how the protests gradually expanded as the violence escalated to a call for President Yanukovych to resign and a protest against corruption in the Ukraine government. Eventually, the protest ended with the fall of the government and the fleeing of President Yanukovych to Russia on February 22, 2014. The violent clashes between police and protesters in February 2014 left an estimated 130 protesters and 18 police officers dead and many more wounded. In March 2014, a more pro-European government, led by President Petro Porochenko was elected.
(Source: White House Youtube page)
Afineevsky recorded the documentary from within the protestors’ ranks, and incorporated a tremendous amount of donated footage, showing the spirit, heroism, resilience and determination of the thousands of demonstrators, activists, journalists, medical workers, artists, and clergymen. It also captures how the government gradually escalated its violent tactics to break the protests on the Maidan Square and how the activists attempted to counter these measures. According to Afineevsky, his film gives the Ukrainian people a chance to tell their story and have it not filtered through Moscow-controlled media outlets that might distort the tale of what happened during that crucial time (Washington Times).
(Source: USEU Youtube Page)
Much has transpired since the end of the Euromaidan protests, now about two-and-a-half years ago. Few people would have predicted that Russia would occupy and annex the Ukrainian Crimea region days after the end of the Maidan occupation (February 27, 2014) and prompt pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine to commence a battle for independence in early April 2014. The UN estimates that in total at least 9,115 civilians and soldiers were killed in Eastern Ukraine between April 6, 2014 and December 8, 2015 (New York Times).
Since the eruption of violence, the EU and US have been working together closely to support the Ukrainian government in its reform efforts to establish rule of law and end corruption, to stabilize the country, and help it regain its lost territory by supplying support and funds, by imposing sanctions on Russia and Ukrainian pro-Russian rebels, and by cooperating with EU member states who serve as negotiating partners for the Minsk protocol, a framework designed to bring a halt to the war in Eastern Ukraine.
“The September 2014 and February 2015 package of Minsk agreements remains the best hope for peace, weapons withdrawal, political normalization, decentralization in Eastern Ukraine, and the return of Ukrainian state sovereignty over that part of its border.” Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland (October 8, 2015)
The U.S. and EU also work closely with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in its reform coordination and monitoring efforts in Ukraine. As U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer stated during a recent visit to Brussels:
“We have used the OSCE to express our strong support for the Ukrainian reform agenda, for Ukrainian journalists and civil society, and for Ukraine’s European choice. That choice is not only the policy of the Ukrainian government, but that was validated by tens of millions of voters across Ukraine in several elections since the former President Yanukovych fled the country. I think we also use the OSCE with respect to Ukraine to reinforce our commitment to a Europe that is whole, free and at peace, and that is respecting the rules of the international order. (USEU blog, posted April 27, 2016)”
One positive sign is that the EU and Ukraine eventually signed the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) agreement on June 27 2014, which went into effect on January 1st 2016, thereby linking the Ukrainian economy more closely with the European Union. Ukraine however still has a way to go to decentralize its political system and fight corruption.
Winter on Fire demonstrates the strong commitment of the Ukrainian people to moving their country forward. As President Obama said during his speech in Bazar (3/27/2014): “The United States and our allies will continue to support the government of Ukraine as they chart a democratic course…What we want is for the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, just like other free people around the world.”
A comment on @winter_on_fire. Its power lies in its accomplishment in rendering a work of nonfiction that can’t be accused of propaganda
— Alexandros Koronakis (@akoronakis) May 24, 2016
— Luis Viegas Cardoso (@lviegascardoso) May 24, 2016
More information on: U.S. Sanctions against Russia
More information on: U.S. Assistance to Ukraine