Fears of civil war as Ukraine protests turn radical and bloody

Kiev stand-off has exacerbated a dangerous split in the country

Pro-European integration protesters take cover from water sprayed from a fire engine at the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev January 23rd, 2014. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko

Pro-European integration protesters take cover from water sprayed from a fire engine at the site of clashes with riot police in Kiev January 23rd, 2014. Photograph: Vasily Fedosenko


Two months after they began, the shape of Ukraine’s protests is shifting, their mood darkening. Talk of civil war is growing, and the country of 46 million is deeply divided.

Since students came out in Kiev and elsewhere to denounce president Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject a historic pact with the European Union and turn back towards Russia, a series of government moves to crush the protesters has only made them more resolute and radical.

On November 30th, riot police severely beat student demonstrators in Kiev, and did the same to journalists and photographers the next day. Protest numbers grew enormously.

On December 11th, with top EU and US diplomats in Kiev, thousands of riot police tried to clear a big opposition camp from the city’s Independence Square. They failed and were forced to retreat, emboldening the protesters and outraging the West as it sought to resolve the crisis.

Six days later, Yanukovich defied the demonstrators and bound Ukraine closer to Russia with a deal for cheaper gas and $15 billion in aid. What Moscow expects in return is still not clear.

By January 16th the number of demonstrators was again dwindling, but then Yanukovich and his allies pushed through a draconian law to criminalise a vast range of protest activity – revitalising the opposition movement and bringing hundreds of thousands back on to Kiev’s streets.

Last Sunday, a group of protesters broke from the main rally on Independence Square and confronted riot police nearby.

Dozens were injured in clashes which showed that some radical demonstrators now reject the authority of mainstream opposition leaders whom they see as weak.

Intense clashes since then have revealed that a significant number of those who peacefully protested since November are now ready to follow those radicals – some of whom are associated with ultranationalist groups – into battle at the barricades. They cannot imagine Yanukovich and his allies leaving power because they would face prosecution and possible imprisonment.

Not even bloodshed has deterred the protesters. In the early hours of Wednesday, up to five were killed, four shot in clashes with riot police. The same day, a prominent anti-government activist was found dead in woods near Kiev, with torture marks on his body.

The stand-off paralysing central Kiev has also exacerbated a dangerous split in Ukraine, between overwhelmingly pro-EU, pro-opposition and nationalist western and central regions, and southern and eastern areas that back Yanukovich and close ties with Russia.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who has called the protesters “criminals” and “extremists”, declared that “a real coup attempt is taking place” in Ukraine.

He spoke after demonstrators in Lviv, western Ukraine’s main city, stormed the governor’s office and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. Local media said government buildings in the cities of Ternopil, Rivne, Cherkassy, Zhytomyr and Ivano-Frankivsk were also besieged.

In the pro-Russian region of Crimea, by contrast, local leaders urged people to “strongly resist attempts by nationalist-radicals to launch an anti-constitutional coup”. The loyalty of the security forces is an increasingly important question. Hours after protesters were shot dead, allegedly by riot police, Azarov was promising more perks for the police and praising their “bravery, self-sacrifice and loyalty”.

In Lviv, meanwhile, people have surrounded the local riot police base to block any attempt to send them as reinforcements to Kiev. The city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, claims the police themselves requested this because “they don’t want to go anywhere”.

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