Riots sweep Ukraine capital as frustrations boil over

By bne IntelliNews January 20, 2014

bne -

Months of frustration in the opposition protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych boiled over as a leaderless mob fought police and took control of the streets.

Tens of thousands of protestors rallied in Independence Square on January 19 in defiance of a set of anti-protest laws that the administration rammed through the Rada earlier in the week. In addition to tougher restrictions and long prison sentences, courts have formally banned demonstrations in the centre of Kyiv. The protests against Yanukovych and his government's decision to abandon a deal to bring the country closer to the EU are now in their ninth week.

A group of protestors broke away from the main rally on Maidan and marched towards the government district, reportedly intending to occupy government offices.

Fighting quickly broke out on Hrushevskoho street as dusk fell. Police took up positions behind a barricade of buses that were attacked by the crowd. The police threw stun grenades, which the crowd answered with fireworks shot into police ranks. The buses became the frontline and were quickly set ablaze.

The elite Berkut police forces were in retreat and formed up into ranks behind a phalanx of riot shields, but officers caught by the crowd were savagely beaten by protestors. One officer was shown on the ground, apparently unconscious, with his head covered in blood. In another, video posted on YouTube showed two officers caught by a group of protestors, which beat them with sticks until they managed to run back into the police lines and safety. Other officers caught out of their ranks were wrestled to the ground and beaten. Another officer was "arrested" by the crowd and taken to Maidan for a "trial," but latter released, according to reports.

The police response was limited. They quickly brought up a breathless video appeal for calm that was posted online and then went to meet Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who called him in for talks.

Later Klitschko told journalists that Yanukovych had turned a "deaf ear" to his demands for early elections and said that he could not now rule out the "possibility of civil war."

However, Klitschko looked hassled and unsure of himself, with the opposition leadership having clearly lost control of the situation. Yanukovych said he will set up a commission and is due to meet with the opposition leaders today, January 20, to seek an end to the standoff. But most protestors believe the president is simply playing for time. The opposition leaders now run the danger of losing their moral authority with the demonstrators and so their ability to control it, which will inevitability lead to an escalation of the violence.

During an opposition meeting on Maidan on January 19, speakers called for the choosing of a single leader and to come up with a concrete plan of action, something they seemed unable to do.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk declared the start of opposition-sponsored referendums and elections for new government bodies and officials in Ukraine during the rally. "We are starting popular voting on the lack of confidence [in the government] and over the dismissal of [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych," he said.

Yatsenyuk added that ballots would be held on a "declaration of support for and confirmation of the authority of the Ukrainian People's Council", as well as on "the creation of a new constitution for Ukraine." He also said a popular vote would be held to elect an alternative Kyiv City Council and mayor of Kyiv. However, these measures fall short of a plan of how to oust Yanukovych.

The crux of the problem the opposition leaders face is that Yanukovych remains a democratically elected leader and there is no constitutional mechanism for ousting him unless he chooses to call early elections - something he shows no sign of even contemplating.

"Without leaders this movement will drown in blood," opposition MP Lesya Orobets said after being attacked by riot police with whom he was trying to negotiate for a peaceful end to the clashes.

Interior Ministry spokesman Serhiy Burlakov blamed "provocateurs and extremists" for the confrontations in a statement and urged people not to follow their lead. Police were filming everything, he said, and had opened criminal proceedings under Article 294 (organisation of mass riots). Under the new laws passed during the week, protestors convicted of demonstrating face up to 15 years in jail, the Ministry of the Interior warned in a statement released late on January 19.

International reaction

The international condemnation was swift, universally calling for calm. The US State Department issued a statement saying: "We urge calm and call on all sides to cease any acts provoking or resulting in violence. We further urge the Government of Ukraine to immediately start negotiations with all sides to resolve the political standoff, address protestors' concerns, and prevent violence from spreading. Violence only serves to foster fear and confusion, and distracts from the need for a political solution, which is the best way to carry out the will of the Ukrainian people."

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also called for calm on his Twitter feed: "Open democracy and reconciliation only way forward for Ukraine. Repression and violence will sink the country."

However, the frustration and helplessness the demonstrators feel is clear from the replies written to this message - protestors are fed up with statements of support and calls for calm. They want action: specifically, they want the EU to impose sanctions on the senior members of the Ukrainian elite and concrete actions to force the government into holding early elections.

"We read the same over and over again in the past 2 months but you did nothing !!!!" wrote @RealAndrij in reply to Bildt's post.

"Angela Merkel and other EU-Leaders need to act now...., otherwise Ukraine will end up in civil war or dictatorship......." added @CasinoMoscow.

As the sun came up over Kyiv on the morning of January 20 tensions remained high. The opposition leaders are due to meet with Yanukovych in the morning, but no one is expecting much to come out of the talks. There were calls for a general strike to start, but that could be self-defeating as the economy is already in dire shape and would only make the economic situation worse.

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