Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukraine's embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, found himself facing a second front January 23 as anti-government protesters stormed regional administrations across the west and centre of Ukraine. Ironically, the development came on a day when a ceasefire held between protesters and police in Kyiv. While clashes in Kyiv are spectacular but largely theatrical, overthrowing state administration in the regions could start the crumbling of Yanukovych's power.
Cherkasy governor's offices stormed by protesters
Attention has been focused for a week on an acre of ground in central Kyiv where police and protestors have fought out a fiery battle - becoming one of the most photographed sites in the world, according to geotagging swarm trackers. But Ukraine is a vast expanse of territory that constitutes Europe's largest country - and is notoriously divided between the Ukrainian-speaking West and Centre and Russian-speaking East and South - making the country a handful to rule at the best of times.
Protestors took over six regional councils in central and western Ukraine and six more are under attack on January 23
Day-to-day administration is in the hands of the bosses of Ukraine's 27 regions. As a centralised state, heads of all these administrations are appointed by the president in Kyiv - meaning a East Ukraine president like Yanukovych can put his people in to govern West Ukraine, despite being broadly detested there. In local elections held in October 2010, the ultranationalist party Svoboda took 25-30% of the vote to win outright in West Ukraine regions of Ternopol, Lviv and Ivano-Franstisk, with Yanukovych's Party of Regions reduced to single figures.
Despite this disconnect, West Ukraine has been deceptively quiet since the start of the Euromaidan protests in November, sparked by the refusal of Yanukovych to sign a deal that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU, instead signing a series of deals with Russia. Instead, tens of thousands of the disaffected from West and Central Ukraine have trekked to Kyiv faithfully Sunday after Sunday to swell the anti-Yanukovych crowds on Kyiv's Independence Square, commonly known as Maidan. Polls showed around half of the demonstrators at the Sunday demos had commuted from the regions - and this does not include the large minority of West Ukrainians resident in the capital.
While West Ukrainians had previously taken peaceful protest to Kyiv, the switch to violent direct action in Kyiv over the last week triggered a similar switch in the regions on January 23 - ironically one day after the national "day of unity" that celebrates the unification of West and East Ukraine in 1918 in a short-lived independent state. As news from Kyiv of shooting of demonstrators on Ukraine's special day was confirmed, and suspicion of police involvement widespread, enraged locals marched on the regional representatives of the hated Yanukovych regime.
First to go was Lviv, stonghold of the protest movement. In the early afternoon of January 23, a crowd of thousands simply marched up to the headquarters of the regional administration with cries of "here we come" and "revolution", walked in and occupied it - forcing the Yanukovych-appointed governor Oleh Salo to resign on the spot. Protesters emerged waving Salo's hand-written and signed resignation letter before cameras, before evicting him from the building. Yanukovych had only made Salo governor in November, in a move perceived locally as preparing for falsification of presidential elections in 2015; Salo had been linked in 2004 to attempts to rig the presidential election in Yanukovych's favour in Lviv region.
Salo later claimed his resignation had been extracted under duress. But the protestors had lost no time in building barricades around the state administration building to prevent his reinstallation - and prepare for a general offensive. "Our task is to take control of all the state organs in the next two to three days - the district administration, the tax service and the police," Andriy Sokolov, spokesman for the National Resistance Staff, said on footage streamed to the internet. "If we don't control the situation here in Galichina (West Ukraine), the Mongol horde will come to us from Kyiv to Lviv."
With the municipality of Lviv's elected mayor Andriy Sadoviy a staunch supporter of the Euromaidan movement, there may be little standing in their way. Self-defence brigades are currently formed in the city, according to nationalist party Svoboda.
House of cards
Other regions followed Lviv's lead in the afternoon and evening. In Rivne, thousands of protestors occupied the regional administration after overcoming resistance from police, singing the national anthem as they did so. Representatives of the nationalist party Svoboda led negotiations with officials, who resigned from their positions after four hours of talks and left the building, a Svoboda spokesman later said. Police units also quit the building to cheers from the crowd outside, and according to unconfirmed reports have also resigned on mass. The victorious protesters now aim to recall local units of the Berkut riot police deployed in Kyiv against demonstrators.
The role of Oleh Tyagnibok's nationalist Svoboda party was even more prominent in the seizure of the state administration in the West Ukrainian Ternopil region - where the party holds a majority in the elected regional assembly, now likely to take over running the region.
In the Centre Ukraine regions of Zhitomir and Cherkassy, things did not go so smoothly for the protestors. In Cherkasy, hundreds of protestors surged into the building of the state administration, smashing through windows and doors. But riot police mounted resistance and blocked protesters from entering the third floor, where head of the state administration Serhiy Tulub has his office. The crowd then set fire to furniture on the lower floors in an effort to smoke out police and officials, while the police poured water from above. According to reports, a police officer threw a heavy flower vase out of a third floor window, hitting and badly injuring a girl, and further enraging the crowd. According to the Facebook feed of local activist Roman Chornomaz, there have been numerous arrests during the night.
In the region of Zhitomir, police repelled a nationalist attempt to capture the district administration. But as local protestor, 29-year-old Ihor Sirovatko, told bne: "The main thing is for me that my country has finally risen from its knees this last week."
While attempts to seize Zhitomir state administration have failed for now, protesters such as Sirovatko may be consoled by protestors' seizure of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food in Kyiv on the night of January 23-24. Agriculture Minister Mykola Prisiazhniuk, a close political and business associate of the Yanukovych family, was formerly an unloved governor of Zhitomir.
A rival nationalist organisation to Svoboda, Spil'na Sprava, claimed it had spearheaded the capture of the agriculture ministry. According to Spil'na Sprava's leader, Oleksandr Danilyuk, the move was a reaction to the failure of negotiations between government and opposition, announced by opposition leaders in the evening of January 23. The agriculture ministry is located on Khreschatik right next to the Maidan, and so is "low-hanging fruit" for protestors.
"Yanukovych told us to get off the streets," Danilyuk told TV cameras, "and this is what we have done," adding that occupying the building would help Maidan to expand and provide shelter for protestors. Ukraine is facing temperatures as low as -20Â°Celsius this weekend, which would make it impossible to sleep in tents. "We can fit a whole army in here," another masked member of Spil'na Sprava told bne, referring to the endless corridors and seven floors of the ministry, while assuring that the agricultural ministry was largely superfluous in winter.
The occupation, if it holds, of such a key ministry could point to a second Achilles heel for Yanukovych, besides his weakness in West and Central Ukraine: while overstretched riot police in Kyiv are defending government, parliament and presidential administration, many key buildings such as the ministries, the National Bank of Ukraine or gas distribution monopoly Naftogaz Ukrainy remain almost completely unguarded. Asked by bne why protesters have not occupied unguarded strategic buildings, a participant in the stand-off with police on Hrushevsky Street answered, "because nobody has given us an order to do so."
But after the failure of negotiations between the opposition and government, and in view of the growing death toll, the disaffected youth contingent may no longer heed the cautious strategy of the political opposition. All three opposition leaders - Arseny Yatsenyuk, Vitaly Klitschko and Oleh Tiahnibok - have visited the militant groups fighting police on Hrushevsky Street over the last 24 hours to plead for restraint - and each was knocked back by a chorus of jeers and whistles.
The peaceful folk of the Maidan may now be looking more to the fighters on Hrushevsky Street than to the speechmakers on the stage for inspiration. On the evening of January 23, the crowd of thousands rejected opposition leaders' request for extension of their mandate to negotiate with the government, and instead called out for immediate territorial expansion of the Maidan.
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