Tens of thousands of protestors gathered on Kyiv's Independence Square and around government buildings on December 1, resulting in several clashes with riot police, as they demonstrated against the government's refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. President Viktor Yanukovych is reported to be close to imposing a state of emergency in response to the return of violence to Ukraine almost a decade after the Orange Revolution.
Protests were not confined to the capital. Similar events took place in many regional cities - a crowd of 40,000 was reported in the western city of Lviv, for instance - to protest against Yanukovych's failure to sign off on the deal, which would have directed Ukraine down a path of closer relations with the EU, and by the same token, pulled it away from Russia and its Customs Union. Unconfirmed reports claim that a total of 1.5m people were on the streets across the country. However, bne reporters in Kyiv estimate the crowd on the Maidan totaled 80,000 at most.
The obvious reference to events is 2004's Orange Revolution, when huge crowds occupied the Maidan and defeated Yanukovych, who had claimed victory in presidential elections, to put a pro-Western president and government in office. In another echo of that time, tents went up on Kreschatik, Kyiv's main thoroughfare, and some 6,000 people spent the night on the streets despite the freezing temperatures as early winter snows arrived.
There were also reports that Yanukovych is considering imposing a state of emergency, while speculation suggested that army units and tanks were being brought up to the capital to quell the dissent. However, the crowds appeared to remain. "Thousands of protesters still on Ukraine's Maidan," tweeted James Marson, a reporter with Dow Jones at 5:00am on December 2. "Young people on barricades armed with sticks and rocks. Every entrance to square blocked."
Protestors said that they intend to picket government buildings on December 2, as they try to force a vote of no confidence in the ruling Party of Regions. The aim is to force a snap general election.
The gathering was prompted by opposition leaders, who called for a mass rally despite attempts by city authorities to impose a ban any demonstrations in the capital until January 7. The protests follow Yanukovych's return from Lithuania on November 30, where he failed to sign off on a trade and association deal with the EU. It seems the president may have miscalculated however. While demonstrations were expected, their scale, and the level of violence, was not. Yanukovych has repeatedly said that integration with Europe is only delayed and could still happen in the spring. However, analysts and protestors regard these remarks as little more than lip service designed to defuse the tension.
The situation began to deteriorate in the afternoon, when protestors seized control of the city hall building, which remains occupied. Later further clashes were seen in front of the presidential office. Riot police set up a line three-deep, erecting a temporary metal barricade. However, in a response reminiscent of the street clashes that led to the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic's government in rump Yugoslavia in 2000, protestors arrived with a road digger and drove it into the line, breaking the barrier.
Video footage shot by onlookers show one masked man wielding a chain, hitting police, while others tossed flares and thunderflashes into the their ranks. Protestors then jimmied cobblestones from the pavement and began to lob them at police. Security forces responded with tear gas and flash grenades.
Later in the day, a group of protestors tried to topple a statue of Lenin on Shevchenko Boulevard using a winch. Riot police arrived on the scene and quickly surrounded the statue. Again the demonstrators lobbed flares and debris into the midst of the police circle, forcing them to retreat. A police spokeswoman told the Interfax newswire that more than 100 officers had been injured in the battles around the president's offices.
Ukraine's topless political activists Femen got into the act as well. A group of bare-chested women urinated on pictures of Yanukovych.
Ominously, the police appeared to target journalists. Photographers and camera men from Reuters and Euronews reported they were attacked by police, coming away with head wounds and covered in blood. The opposition started a Facebook page listing all the correspondents that had been ill treated by the security forces.
In one more successful PR stunt protestors hijacked the giant advertising screen known as Jumbotron that oversees Maidan and programmed it to show a giant EU flag to the appreciation of the crowds.
Opposition claims provocation
Opposition leaders tried to maintain order and prevent violence, which they said only played in to the hands of the government. Leader of the UDAR (Punch) opposition party and world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko marched into a crowd near the government buildings at dusk to try to quell the fighting. Lifted onto the shoulders of his supporters, Klitschko shouted through a megaphone "return to Maidan! Don't be provoked!," and called on the demonstrators to refrain from attacking administration buildings. Police lines advanced on the crowd as Klitschko shepherded them away without incident, back to the main protests.
UDAR later released a statement claiming that the violence was "nothing to do with the opposition," and was the work of "provocateurs," a claim made several times by various opposition figures. "We would like to inform you that opposition parties have nothing to do with the recent attempts to attack administrative buildings in Kyiv. Situation in the Bankova street is the result of the actions of the group of provocateurs, who work on the orders from the Presidential Administration," the statement claimed. "Opposition leaders strongly condemn their actions which absolutely contradict the peaceful character of the protest against the Yanukovych regime. They personally tried to calm down the participants. Vitaly Klitschko joined by other UDAR members managed to separate ... provocateurs from the riot police."
Clearly the opposition are worried that the government will take the violence up a notch and rumours appeared several times during the day that army units and tanks were being brought to the capital on Twitter with the hashtag #Euromaidan.
Yanukovych called an emergency meeting at his Mezhigorye residence with top police and government officials, where the imposition of a state of emergency was reportedly discussed, according to unnamed sources cited by RBK-Ukraine. The president will be starting to feel embattled. Hundreds of protestors set out to demonstrate at the luxurious palace, itself a symbol of controversy and ire, but were stopped by a police roadblock and more special riot police units.
The decree on a state of emergency is reportedly to be approved by the Verkhovna Rada within 48 hours after an address to the nation. However, Tim Ash at Standard Bank speculates Yanukovych has already lost control of the situation. On the one hand, the analysts suggests, he could struggle to get enough votes in the parliament to pass the motion; secondly it would be almost impossible to enforce without significantly scaling up the government forces.
"It is doubtful at this stage whether the Yanukovych regime would be able to ensure that such a declaration had effect, Ash writes. "[The ruling Party of] Regions already had a flaky majority, and the signs are that Regions MPs are peeling off, perhaps nervous over their own futures, if the street demonstrations prove successful in sweeping the government from power." At least one Regions deputy has already quit and others might fall. Several press secretaries of deputies also quit their jobs on December 1, according to tweeted accounts by opposition forces, which have not yet been confirmed.
Protestors are back on the streets in force on December 2, but there are reports that the opposition leaders will meet with representatives of the government to try and bring the tension down a notch. The leader of the opposition Fatherland party, Arseny Yatsenyuk, told a news conference that a picket will be installed outside the Ukrainian government building and a no-confidence motion has been submitted to parliament. The opposition is keen to keep the demonstrations peaceful and avoid bloodshed, but they are likely to demand the government's resignation, says Ash, "along with the president, as the price of pulling people off the streets."
Having faced down the opposition so far, and with the prospects of a rescue package of money arriving in the next couple of weeks from either Moscow or Beijing, it is highly unlikely that Yanukovych will back down yet. At the same time, the situation remains fluid and could easily spiral out of control.
Swedish Foreign Minister Karl Bildt, who has been hugely critical of the government throughout the association agreement drama tweeted on December 1: "I fear that Yanukovich has decided on a policy of repression. But still hope that other voices will speak up. Extreme danger for Ukraine."
Assuming the situation does not spark off in the coming hours or days, both sides will dig in for the long haul. Unless the Party of Regions deputies start quitting en masse, the protests are likely to drag on. The government will attempt to whittle away at the demonstrators' resolve while the opposition leaders attempt to maintain the momentum.
You can follow events today at the Kyiv Post, which has a live update page here. There is an intermittent live feed from Reuters of Maidan here. There is a live feed webcam of the main square in Lviv here: here
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