Tensions spike in Kyiv on fears of govt crackdown

By bne IntelliNews December 10, 2013

bne -

A big day faces Ukraine December 10 as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton holds talks with all sides in an attempt to find "a way out of the political crisis", while President Viktor Yanukovych will meet his three predecessors - Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.

Ashton flew to Kyiv a stunning 27 times during the period ahead of the Vilnius summit at the end of November when she was negotiating the failed Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine. She is the personification of the protestors' European aspirations and is due to meet with all parties involved in the standoff - the government leadership, the opposition and civil society.

The Ukrainian government is still playing lip service to a desire to do the EU deal, but as the Kyiv Post put it: "no one believes them." Critics say the government is simply trying to diffuse the situation with the promises, but has no other goal than to muddle through to the 2015 presidential election.

Ashton will arrive to a very jumpy Kyiv, where tensions spiked on December 9 after 100 troops and riot police around midday marched into the centre and deployed around protestors' camps. Desperate tweets flew and leaders called on opposition members to man the barricades in preparation for an anticipated storming of the centre of the city by the police.

One of the options on the table is possibly to restart talks over a new stand-by loan deal with the International Monetary Fund, which is due to hold a meeting on Ukraine on December 16. Ashton could, in theory, persuade the Ukrainian government to promise to meet all the IMF demands for reform, which would enable the restarting of talks with the IMF, but this remains a remote possibility.

In an early warning sign of what could be in store for Ukraine if the situation deteriorates, the yield on the Ukraine June 2014 dollar bond jumped to a record 20.86%. Earlier this year the government took advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to raise over $1bn from the international bond market, but the jump in yields highlight how Ukraine is now completely cut off from all normal means of financing and has no choice but to a cut deal with either Russia or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) if it is to avoid a crisis.

As darkness fell in Kyiv on December 9 the crowds swelled as more people came to man the barricades. The entrances to three metro stations in the heart of the city were blockaded in case the police used them to attack. Protestors covered the stairs in the metro station to the street with cling film and snow to make them more slippery and impossible to climb by police forces. The protest camp of UDAR, the party of opposition leader and boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko, was also completely surrounded and no one was allowed in or out

As the initial fears of an assault died down, they resurfaced again as night fell and all the stores and fast food joints on the main central thoroughfare Kreschatik were told to close early, reportedly on government orders, which only drove expectations of violence higher. Women and children were advised to leave government buildings and spend the night at home.

In the end, the government forces did move in, but only in a limited operation to take control back of some of the streets in the government district, dismantling many tents and barricades with barbed wire that were set up over the past week by protesters, without having to use much physical force. "Strategy is to slowly but surely reclaim those streets, areas around govt buildings w/o use of force," Christopher Miller of the Kyiv Post tweeted late in the evening, summing up the plan.

The opposition had set the goal of occupying the main government district as the map below shows. However, they have now lost control of that part of town, which will move the epicentre of the protest back on to Maidan.

Police also raided the Batkivshchyna headquarters, the political party of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, smashing the offices and confiscating servers and documents. "They've turned the server room into a mess... Searches are under way and the doors of the Batkivschyna Party's office are being broken down," Batkivshchyna leader Arseniy Yatseniuk said at a briefing. "No parliamentarians are let into the office. All the equipment has been damaged."

There have been reports that the government intends to arrest and charge several opposition leaders on charges of inciting riots, but a police spokesman later denied there were any such plans.

"Although there were only minor conflicts reported, Dec. 9 was psychologically exhausting for protesters who spent the day alert and fearing attacks," Miller wrote later in the Kyiv Post.

As in other protest movements, Twitter has become an essential tool for the opposition to communicate and coordinate their actions. The use of Twitter is especially relevant for "Euromaidan", as this protest has been dubbed, as it remains an essentially headless grassroots movement. Ukraine's opposition is of course playing an important role, but unlike the 2004 Orange Revolution which was centred on installing Viktor Yushchenko as president, this time round there are still no political goals for the majority of the people, other than a demand to integrate with Europe.

Readers can follow the blow-by-blow action by signing up to the "bne Ukraine" list that can be found in the list section of our twitter account @bizneweurope, which tracks the main correspondents, government officials and English language information sources on the ground in Kyiv.

The main media outlets also report that they have come under attack. The Kyiv Post's site was brought down for several hours by a denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack), forcing their correspondents to rely entirely on Twitter to reach the rest of the world.

The government forces have already taken the main TV station and also surrounded several independent TV stations, especially channel 5 that was the voice of the opposition in 2004.

It seems that the government is attempting to free the government machinery that has come to a standstill. Ukraine cannot afford this crisis as it is teetering on the edge of a default and devaluation, and the longer the protests go on the sooner a collapse will happen.

While Yanukovych in theory can simply tough it out and ignore the protests until the next presidential elections in 2015, in practice he needs a resolution within the next month or so, as without some sort of deal that comes with a rescue package attached the economy will collapse.

All eyes today are on the EU negotiator Catherine Ashton, who is in Kyiv December 10 to start talks between the two sides in an attempt to diffuse tensions. Her office said in a statement that Baroness Ashton will hold talks with government officials, opposition activists and civil society groups "to support a way out of the political crisis".

However, the European Commission has stressed that while the EU's offer of an Association Agreement with Ukraine remains on the table - a deal which Yankovych's refusal to sign sparked off the current crisis - the country needs to meet certain conditions that cannot be renegotiated.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych also unexpectedly called for talks that would be hosted by three previous presidents. The president's press service said on December 9 that Mr Yanukovych would support an initiative described as a "nationwide roundtable" to try to defuse the crisis which will include meeting his three predecessors: Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.

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