Yanukovych in ruder health as he returns to Ukraine fray

By bne IntelliNews February 3, 2014

Harriet Salem in Kyiv -

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returned from three days of sick leave on February 3. Divisions in the opposition, and the West's hesitance to take decisive action, means he looks to be returning to the table in much ruder health.

Taken amidst one of the country's deepest political crises - which kicked off in November when he refused to sign off on a pact that would have pulled Ukraine closer to the EU - it's unclear whether the president's time off signals he is stressed, stalling or simply nonchalant. Whatever the case, the latest round of talks started well for opposition forces. The staunchly pro-Russian Mykola Azarov resigned as prime minister on January 28 before high-tailing it to Vienna. Meanwhile, the Verkhovna Rada repealed a draconian package of legislation curtailing protest activities and media freedom.

However, the opposition's brightening hopes subsequently began to fade. Worryingly, although the repressive laws have been repealed on paper, in practice they appear to still be very much in force. "Police are stopping cars everywhere in the city, yesterday I was stopped more than ten times," Anton, a member of the AutoMaidan, a car patrol formed to defend the EuroMaidan protestor base, tells bne.

Alongside the ever-growing list of protesters missing in action, and ongoing tensions in the east of the country, the continued presence of several leading EuroMaidan activists on the police wanted list - including AutoMaidan leader Dmtroy Bulatov, who was reportedly kidnapped and viciously tortured - is also a cause for concern. Bulatov is now said to have fled to Lithuania.

Even more crucially, a promised amnesty law for imprisoned protestors was passed on January 29 after much wrangling, but only with a caveat that Independence Square - the protestor nerve centre in Kyiv commonly known as Maidan - and several occupied government buildings be cleared within 15 days. "It is absolutely outrageous that Yanukovych is demanding buildings for people," one source close to opposition leaders tells bne. "It shows very clearly that these prisoners are kept as hostages and that there is a total breakdown of law and order in Ukraine."

The condition is also unlikely to sit well with the more radical elements on the streets. Praviy Sector [Right Sector] - an adhoc coalition of football hooligans with a fondness for Molotov cocktails - has said a temporary ceasefire will end on February 7 if the 116 activists currently in jail are not released. "Instead of using this parliamentary session to build confidence it has been used as window dressing for the West, and a means to divide the Maidan. It is a clever trap," the source adds.

Cracks in the opposition

Cracks in the protest movement appear to be growing by the day. In particular a rift seems to be emerging between the three appointed opposition leaders - Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok - and those who have taken a more active role on the ground. "Praviy Sector and AutoMaidan have the support of the people but they are not being given a voice in the negotiations, it seems that the opposition are scared by the power they wield," one of EuroMaidan's key voices tells bne.

The EU and the US have also jumped to snap up the bait. Whilst Western officials have been quick to express their "concern" and "sympathy," over the violent crackdowns and repressive atmosphere, the concessions offered by the president appear to have bought the Ukrainian government some time.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Western powers were working on a financial plan for Ukraine that includes numbers that "won't be small" and relaxes demands for immediate compliance with the stringent standards of the IMF. Any deal, however, would be contingent on the new Ukrainian government demonstrating commitment to pursuing economic and political reform, she added.

While the EU half-heartedly dangles carrots, the US seems slightly more inclined to reach for the stick. Earlier this month Washington introduced visa sanctions targeting Ukraine officials that, in the words of the US Embassy "were linked to the violence." However, there has been no public naming-and-shaming of those now subject to travel restrictions; a move which critics say removes the bite from what they claim is already a soft sanction.

"The names are being kept secret because Obama doesn't want to upset Putin," a senate staffer tells bne. "There is bipartisan frustration in both houses about this. One benefit is that it gives flexibility, so that those regime figures who choose to go over to the Maidan side can do so more easily, but on the other hand it smacks of weakness" he adds.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian opposition is unlikely to find its calls for Europe to take action answered in the near future, with agreement proving tricky to find. "Between 18 to 20 of the EU states, including all new members, are in favour of action, but France, Germany and Cyprus are not" the senate source claims. "There is no consensus at all."

That appears key. If Europe could find a way to move on financial sanctions it could prove a game-changer. Most of Ukraine's elite stash their money in Europe, and if the EU were to credibly threaten sanctions it would likely cause mass defections from the Yanukovych regime. Recent reports that oligarch Rinat Ahmetov - Ukraine's richest man with strong ties to Moscow - is having difficulty accessing his funds in Swiss accounts, suggest that work may already be going on behind the scenes.

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