February 20 will go down in Ukrainian history as one of the bloodiest days it has endured. Dozens were killed after police were ordered to use live ammunition on unarmed protestors. However, it also looks to have broken the back of the regime, as deputies fled the country and the opposition took control of the Rada.
The truce agreed a day earlier between the Ukrainian government and opposition - which has occupied Independence Square, known as Maidan, since President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a pact with the EU in November - lasted a mere 12 hours. Early in the morning fighting began to rapidly escalate, and turned bloody as the police adopted live ammunition in earnest. By the middle of the day snipers had spread out across the rooves overlooking the roads in the government district and approaches to Maidan. On top of the deaths, a total of 571 have been wounded this week, according to the interior ministry.
Protesters manned the barricades despite the mounting death toll. "The situation is out of control," opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said in a desperate plea to the international community to act.
However, as the day ended it seemed that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had gone too far, with his support melting away. The image of bodies piling up on the pavements and snipers ruthlessly picking off members of a ragtag resistance force sheltering behind wooden shields was too much for even the European Union to ignore. (Warning: the video footage is graphic)
Brussels has been dithering for three months, apparently hoping that it could still cut a deal with Yanukovych and leaving the protestors in the lurch. The obvious threat of a full-scale civil war was enough to finally spur the EU into action, as it launched sanctions against "those responsible for the violence." This means freezing accounts in European banks, seizing luxury villas on the Cote d'Azure, and cancelling visas.
"EU decides as a matter of urgency on asset freeze and visa ban on those responsible for violence and excessive force in Kiev, " Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said on his Twitter account.
Threatening to take the money of Yanukovych and his backers looks to have helped do the trick. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that following a meeting with the foreign ministers of Poland, France and Germany, the beleaguered president has agreed to a deal that touches on most of the points demanded by the opposition.
"The three ministers are in Kyiv discussing a certain document, which gives a chance to bring an end to violence and achieve an agreement," Tusk told a news conference. "A willingness for early elections, already this year, parliamentary as well as presidential, was agreed."
Maidan: before and after
Flight from fight
Sanctions will hurt the ruling Party of Regions especially hard as its backers and MPs are big businessmen who have harnessed political power to further their own business interests. But more than that, the storm of international condemnation and the obvious consequences set to follow the butchery on the streets seems to have been too much for many deputies.
Even the rhetoric coming out of Moscow was critical. At the same time, the Kremlin announced it would delay the next $2bn tranche for a second time until things are "more stable," which presumably means unless Kyiv has a pro-Russian government in place.
Without the next chunk of bailout cash, Ukraine will slip into full-scale financial meltdown. While no one in Kyiv was really paying attention to the financial markets on February 20, the country's bonds crashed and the hryvna's exchange rate broke below the psychologically important UAH9/$1 level.
Meanwhile, an exodus looks to have started. The charter manifest of planes leaving Kyiv's Zhulyany Airport on February 20 reads like a who's who of Ukrainian business, many of them Party of Regions deputies. Even Speaker of Parliament Volodymyr Rybak is reported to have bailed. Normal daily traffic at the Ukrainian capital's other international gateway - Boryspil - is 80 flights, but 180 planes, mostly privately owned or charters, left the country, according to reports. Demonstrators rushed to the airport to prevent the flight of Region's hierarchy.
Ukraine's Rada met late on the night of February 20, but the seats normally occupied by the Party of Regions deputies on the right side of the hall were mostly empty. According to reports, another 12 members of Regions quit the party, to add to the dozen that walked over the proceeding week, including the mayor of Kyiv.
Even more tellingly none of the 50-odd Regions deputies belonging to Rinat Akhmetov's faction turned up. Ukraine's richest man has been calling for calm and reportedly was willing to sign the opposition's version of the amnesty bill two weeks ago. Likewise, leading Regions figure Sergiy Tigipko offered conciliatory moves, calling for the immediate resignation Rybak and the urgent election of a prime minister supported by all factions.
"The president, the parliament speaker, the acting prime minister and opposition leaders have completely lost control of the situation in the country and do not offer any solutions to pacify the country," Tigipko - another oligarch whose faction of MPs was absent from the Rada session - wrote on his Facebook page. "Their inaction is leading to increased confrontation and deaths. Immediate concrete steps, rather than negotiations, are needed to resolve the crisis in the country." Tigipko - who has been mentioned as a potential compromise candidate for PM - met with opposition leaders during the day.
The desertion from Regions follows other signs that Yanukovych's hold on power is cracking. Without offering any explanation, on February 18 the president fired the country's military chief, and replaced him with the head of the navy. Speculation was rife in Kyiv that the president had tried to order the army on the streets of the capital, but that the army must have refused.
Suddenly in control of the Rada the opposition lead parliament immediately voted through an order to end the anti-terror operations - which two days previously saw the military posted to protect government buildings. Interior ministry troops were ordered to return to their barracks, and it was reaffirmed that only the parliament can order a state of emergency, which had been de facto in place all day.
Moreover, the Rada session ruled that any police use of guns would be considered criminal. Earlier in the day, any protestor remaining on Maidan had been considered an "extremist" and subject to the anti-terror laws (which can be issued by presidential executive order and don't need to go through the Rada).
Overnight, opposition leaders were headed into a meeting with Yanukovych and the EU foreign ministers, to apparently thrash out a deal. In the final piece of business of the day, the Rada said it will vote on reverting to the 2004 constitution on February 21.
One of the most confusing, yet tantalizing, hints that Yanukovych has lost control over his own government was a statement released by the ministry of foreign affairs. The note suggested Ukraine should abandon Russia and move towards the EU, which looks remarkably like a ministry rebellion.
"We believe that now is the time for compromise," it reads. "We urge all parties to do everything to ensure that our country has ceased the bloodshed. When the conflict is still underway, remember that the common European values unite Ukrainian citizens with each other. We believe that the signing of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, the support of which has in fact become a cornerstone for Euromaidan, can unite us all."
Tellingly it introduced the suggestion by saying: "At the time when the eyes of the world are turned to Ukraine, when our brothers and sisters lose their lives on the streets of Ukrainian cities, Ukrainian diplomats cannot stay aside," which strongly suggests the note was not an official statement of policy, but represents the thoughts of the individual diplomats working for the ministry.
However it plays out, a sense that the end of the bloodshed is near was circulating in Kyiv overnight. Yanukovych's family and funds (including state reserves) are being flown to Dnepropetrovsk on an internal revenue service plane, with the intention being to leave the country from there, said a bne source, although that speculation has proved difficult to confirm.
A drone gives a bird's eye view of Maidan on Wednesday here
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