Ukraine president stuck for an exit as mass protests continue

By bne IntelliNews December 9, 2013

Graham Stack in Kyiv -

Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protestors took to the streets again in Kyiv December 8, filling Kyiv's central Maidan square to demand the resignation of Ukraine's government, and erecting barricades sealing off the government district. Not only is the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych losing the battle of the streets, it is also losing the battle of the airwaves as the country's oligarchs back the people's protest.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 again took to the streets of Kyiv to protest against Ukraine's failure to sign an association and free trade pact with the EU at a summit in Vilnius at the end of November, and a subsequent crackdown on protesters by riot police. RFE/RL posted some remarkable footage of the crowd taken from the top of the Christmas tree on Maidan that gives a clear idea of the scale of the gathering.

The protestors had three goals, head of opposition party Batkyvshina Arseny Yatsenyuk told bne on the eve of the demonstration, and since subscribed to by all opposition leaders: "Firstly, the liberation of the protestors who are in police custody following the bloody clearing of the Maidan square on the night of November 29. Secondly, the punishment of those responsible. Thirdly, the resignation of the current government and the appointment of a technical government."

Not quite a million

Protest leaders had called for a "million man march" to up the ante from December 1's protest rally that put 300,000-400,000 on the streets - one day after pictures of riot police beating pro-Europe demonstrators on the Maidan had shocked the nation.

This time round another event had alarm bells ringing: on December 6, President Viktor Yanukovych met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi to discuss possible financial help and trade relations. A blizzard of tweets by leading international supporters of Ukraine against Russia, such as The Economist's Edward Lucas and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, reported that Yanukovych had signed Ukraine up for the Russia-led Customs Union, a rival free trade area to the EU, in exchange for cash. Both Russia and Ukraine later denied having discussed Ukraine's membership of the Customs Union, or to having signed any agreements.

In the event, there's wasn't a million, but 300,000-400,000 excited and cheerful supporters gathered on December 8, filling the Maidan and the adjoining Khreschatik high street. "We're here to chase these people from power and win back our country for Europe," said 19-year-old Kyiv student Oleh Chepak.

The protest leaders, keen to maintain momentum, skillfully used their strength in numbers to "extend" the Maidan camp from the central square to the neighbouring government district - erecting barricades to fully seal off all access roads to the presidential administration, parliament, central bank and government buildings. "This is a peaceful protest and we are merely picketing government buildings and creating a pedestrian zone to which everyone has access," Yatsenyuk said following the protest.

Members of the nationalist West Ukraine-based Svoboda party toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin, in a dramatic gesture from which protests leaders distanced themselves.

The barricades now standing round the government quarters significantly ramp up pressure on the government, says Vladimir Fesenko, director of the think-tank Penta. "This will make it almost impossible for government to go on with 'business as usual' and should force the opening of negotiations."

With the protestors making the dismissal of the government a precondition for any talks, Yanukovych may now be stuck for an exit: Ukraine's economic crisis is deepening, and dismissing the government would exacerbate the power vacuum. "Ukraine is in ongoing default," Yatsenyuk said at the briefing.

Government and police reaction to the latest mass protests and erection of barricades was peaceful. Opposition leaders, however, report a crackdown is in the offing. "I have information from very good sources that Yanukovych is planning to introduce martial law as part of his bargain with Putin," Yatsenyuk said on the evening of December 8. Ominously, Ukraine's security service, the SBU, referring to the erection of barricades, confirmed it had opened a criminal investigation into "certain politicians committing illegal acts aimed at state power seizure." US state department officials warned the Ukrainian authorities against any use of violence.

What happens next depends on who is pulling the strings in the Yanukovych camp. Head of the presidential administration Serhiy Liovochkin resigned November 30 in protest against the police violence, but Yanukovych has refused to accept the resignation and name a successor. According to Fesenko, the loyalist former deputy prime minister Andriy Klyuyev "seems now in charge and may be behind some of the most repressive measures." Klyuyev has been accused of masterminding Yanukovych's alleged ill-fated attempt to rig the 2004 presidential election, which culminated in the mass protests of the Orange Revolution. He could not be reached for comment.

EU's foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton is set to travel to Kyiv to mediate this week, European Commission President Barroso announced December 8.

The oligarchs are revolting

While grassroots organisations and opposition parties run the Maidan protest camp now in control of downtown Kyiv and besieging the seat of government, oligarch-controlled TV channels are endorsing the Maidan protestors in tens of millions of living rooms across the country.

Most surprising has been what media watchdog Telekritika calls an "information revolution" at Inter TV, Ukraine's most influential broadcaster. Inter TV is owned by gas oligarch Dmitry Firtash, hitherto a Yanukovych loyalist. Illustrating the change: Inter downplayed initial pro-Europe protests on Maidan November 24, claiming only 20,000 attended while neutral observers spoke of four-times that number. On December 8 the opposite was true: Inter evening news reported a million had joined the Kyiv protest, while neutral observers estimated the number at less half that.

Inter TV has provided blanket positive prime-time coverage of the Maidan since November 30, including repeat screening of scenes of police violence and youthful blood-streaked faces from the night of November 29 - referring emotionally to the government's "shedding the blood of Ukrainian children". "This could not have happened without a direct order from above," according to Telekritika's Nikolai Kuzyakin.

Firtash himself, in his guise as head of the Ukrainian Federation of Employers (UFE), made his first statement on events December 7, in a call to prevent "the ruination of the Ukrainian economy". According to UFE, "the high level of corruption on all levels of government, the huge administration and tax pressure on business, and a biased judiciary weakening property rights, have brought Ukraine to a critical threshold, beyond which await a drop in economic activity, catastrophic increase in unemployment and social tension."

UFE demanded: "the liquidation of corruption, of administrative pressure, transparent taxation, a realistic state budget and support for national producers," and for government to negotiate with the opposition, though not expressly for signing the Association Agreement with the EU.

Other TV owners, such as metals oligarch Viktor Pinchuk and banking oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, traditionally less aligned with Yanuovych than Firtash, are also providing generous TV coverage of the Maidan, and leaning on Yanukovych to sign the Association Agreement. One opposition leader, former economy minister Petro Poroschenko, is himself a TV magnate, with his Fifth Channel providing rolling coverage of protests. Even a channel owned by Yanukovych's closest ally, Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov, has been providing balanced coverage, according to Telekritika: Akhmetov's Systems Capital Management group, which has one of Ukraine's slickest PR operations and is gearing up for a billion-dollar IPO on Western capital markets, also released a neutral statement on December 3 calling for "mutually acceptable solutions" to be found.

Opposition leader, and head of UDAR party, Vitaly Klitschko, told bne that there are no specific talks going on between the opposition and oligarchs. "Firtash, Kolomoisky, Pinchuk - I communicate with all of them and they are all interested in clear and transparent rules of the game, so that when times change they are not dependent on who comes to power next," Klitschko said.

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