After two weeks of relative calm, tension in Kyiv is high again as a 15 day deadline on the government's offered amnesty expires. On the surface, the prospects for compromise seem good, with both sides in the conflict having made gestures designed to deescalate the mood. However, the threat of renewed violence remains.
The amnesty law was part of a package passed by the government two weeks ago, designed to bring an end to the street fighting that has plagued the Ukrainian capital this year. The protests were kicked off in November by President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign a pact with the EU, and subsequent deal with Russia, developed into street battles in late December and early January.
Under the deal, all protestors that comply with the terms in the law - they must leave occupied government buildings and the central Independence Square, or Maidan - will be excused for any illegal acts - although only those committed between December 27 and February 2 - according to a statement on the general prosecutor's website.
The statement did not specify how many protesters would be pardoned, although the chief prosecutor has suggested 259 demonstrators would receive clemency under the agreement, Ria Novosti reports.
However, it is exactly those riders on the bill that leave open the prospects of more clashes. The opposition leaders rejected the amnesty out of hand when it was passed on January 29, calling instead for a blanket amnesty with no conditions attached. However, at the last minute, the protestors moved to comply with some, but not all, of the government's demands.
The opposition left occupied government buildings over the weekend. A key flash point was removed from the game on February 16, when protestors left City Hall in central Kyiv, which they have been occupying and using as a headquarters for the last two months. However, the opposition has threatened to take it back again if the government doesn't hold up its side of the bargain.
Volodymyr Makeyenko, head of the Kyiv city state administration, said the talks with the opposition were constructive and a compromise was reached that demonstrators would vacate the building to allow city authorities to resume their work. "This is the first step towards settling the political crisis and signals that the Ukrainian opposition seeks a peaceful agreement," he insisted, according to Ria Novosti. He also thanked the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for acting as a mediator at talks.
Protestors have also withdrawn from the barricades in Hrushevshoho Street. The road leading to the parliament has been the scene of some of the worst fighting. For its part the government released 243 protesters from jail as part of the amnesty deal. Only one protestor is reported to remain under arrest.
War or peace?
However, the stand off is anything but easy. The authorities have sent bulldozers into the centre of Kyiv to start removing barricades. Meanwhile, a sprawling tent city remains on Maidan, and some sections of the crowd have denounced the decision to end the occupations of buildings. Some protestors have been reinforcing the barricades, replacing the bags of melting snow with sand.
Taking a cynical view, the ruling Regions party included the terms on the amnesty bill precisely because it sensed it could antagonize splits in the opposition. At the same time, the offer of an amnesty gives the government the excuse that it tried to compromise, even if the intention from the start was to send in police and army to clear the square by force.
According to reports, some 50 ruling Party of Regions deputies were willing to vote through an unconditional amnesty bill back in January. However, Yanukovych personally arrived at the Rada building on the eve of the vote and bullied them into the caveats.
Despite the gestures of peace-making, Yanukovych has not been acting like someone who is preparing for peace. He has used the last two weeks of relative calm to increase his control over the government and regions with a string of sackings and new appointments appointing more officials personally loyal to him in key posts in the security services and regional administrations.
Even if the government's intentions are honest, tension will remain high over the possibility. The next few days will be crucial in deciding how the next phase of the protests play out.
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