What's Happening in Ukraine? The Idiot's Guide Explainer

PHOTO: Ukrainian protestors continue to protest on Kievs Independence Square, Dec. 4, 2013.
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More than a quarter of a million people have been protesting on the streets of Kiev. They've been largely peaceful, but they've set up barricades around Independence Square to keep riot police out. They've also set up barricades around government buildings and many have occupied City Hall. They say this will continue until the president calls new elections.

Wait, Kiev? Isn't that a tasty chicken dish?

Kiev is the capital of Ukraine, a country in Eastern Europe that used to be part of the Soviet Union but still maintains close political ties with Russia. But chicken Kiev is pretty delicious.

Why are they protesting? Are they as angry about Wendy's discontinuing their pretzel buns as I am?

Um, no. But they are very angry because Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich backed out of a trade deal with the European Union last week. This wasn't just about a trade deal, it was a symbolic decision about the future of the country: Would Ukraine be allied with Europe or with Russia? They're even more mad because riot police violently broke up a peaceful protest in the overnight hours on Saturday.

So why didn't the president sign the deal?

President Yanukovich was under a lot of pressure from Russia, which in the past has cut off gas exports to Ukraine and banned Ukrainian products when Ukraine does things that the Kremlin doesn't like. That's a lot of pressure and the Ukrainian economy is already hurting. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Yanukovich, who has been Putin's ally, to Moscow for marathon meetings just before the EU deal was called off. It's believed that Putin pressured him into pursuing a deal with Russia instead, but we don't yet know exactly what was offered.

So, how did this guy get elected?

Glad you asked. Ukraine is pretty much split down the middle. The people in the industrial eastern half speak Russian, are Russian Orthodox and favor closer ties with Russia. Those in the western half think the opposite. They prefer to speak Ukrainian, and many are Roman Catholic. Most importantly, they don't trust the Russians and want to forge closer ties with Europe. It's that western half that is protesting. It's that eastern half that voted President Yanukovich into office.

Yanukovich tried to steal an election in 2004, but protests known as the Orange Revolution forced a new election that he lost. But the people who took over were pretty incompetent, and Yanukovich won the next time.

Wait, isn't that the heavyweight boxing champ I see on my TV? And isn't he engaged to 'Nashville's' Hayden Panettiere?

Yes and no. That is Vitali Klitschko, the reigning WBC heavyweight champ. He's a member of parliament and started his own opposition party, whose name means "Punch." He's already announced plans to run for president in 2015, and he's been a vocal leader of the protests. His brother, Wladimir, also a champion boxer, has been out in the protests as well but is less visible. He's the one who's engaged to Hayden. The two brothers took a selfie among the protestors the other day and posted it to Twitter. Wladimir took one of himself in front of a row of armored riot police.

Who is that woman with the Princess Leia haircut?

It's not exactly the same haircut, but that's beside the point. That's former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She's been under house arrest on what her supporters insist are politically motivated charges. Her release from prison was a key demand by the European Union for a deal to go through.

So what happens now?

That's the million dollar question. So far, President Yanukovich isn't backing down, but neither are the protestors. They've given Yanukovich two days to call new elections. If he doesn't, they say they'll step up their round the clock protests.

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