Fiery confrontation in Kiev fuels fears for Ukraine

Radical elements on the rise as Yanukovich stymies mainstream opposition

A protester throws a Molotov cocktail during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on January 20th, 2014. Hundreds of protesters carrying clubs and wearing gas masks faced riot police in Kiev a day after 200 people were injured in clashes. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

A protester throws a Molotov cocktail during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on January 20th, 2014. Hundreds of protesters carrying clubs and wearing gas masks faced riot police in Kiev a day after 200 people were injured in clashes. Photograph: Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA

Tue, Jan 21, 2014, 01:00

Hopes for a peaceful resolution to Ukraine’s crisis were dwindling last night, amid a fiery confrontation in Kiev and signs that radical elements were challenging mainstream politicians for influence over the opposition movement.

Anti-government demonstrators hurled petrol bombs and rocks at ranks of black-clad riot police throughout yesterday, across barricades built from the scorched carcasses of buses set ablaze during bloody rioting the previous evening. Police responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

As night fell and the temperature dropped towards minus 10 degrees, the crowd grew larger and Molotov cocktails and hissing fireworks rained more intensely on the raised shields of the police. Other protesters hammered out a relentless beat on oil drums and metal sheeting, unperturbed by the fierce flash and crack of grenades fired in return.

Two months of almost entirely peaceful protests centred on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, erupted into violence on Sunday, when several thousand activists marched about 500 metres from the square to challenge riot police blocking access to government headquarters and parliament.

“We just heard the same things from the opposition leaders on Sunday, the same empty promises from the stage on Maidan. A lot of people were sick of waiting for them to come up with a proper plan of action. And that’s why this happened,” said Taras, a protester from Kiev.

At the forefront of clashes between activists and police appears to be a loose alliance of ultra-nationalist groups called Right Sector, which has condemned the failure of the three main political parties to translate big street protests into decisive pressure on Ukraine’s leaders. Until now, the group has largely been associated with far-right football fans, but its growing prominence is symptomatic of an alarming polarisation in Ukrainian society.

The protests began in late November, when president Viktor Yanukovich – already dislike by many people for his alleged corruption and autocratic tendencies – rejected a historic deal with the European Union in favour of moves to repair ties with Russia. However, worries over Ukraine’s relations with the West have now taken a backseat to fears for the very future of its democracy, after Mr Yanukovich’s allies last week rushed through sweeping laws to criminalise a vast range of protest activity. The president has signed the legislation and it will come into effect once it is published in Ukraine’s official parliamentary newspaper.

Opposition parties said the legislation paves the way for the violent dispersal of the protest camp on Maidan, but their continuing failure to choose one overall leader or to find ways to effectively weaken Mr Yanukovich fuelled the frustration now exploding in Kiev.

The EU and US have criticised Mr Yanukovich’s handling of the crisis and urged him to resolve it peacefully. They have also condemned Ukraine’s new anti-protest laws. “It is the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades,” said Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt.

The anti-government rallies have been strongest in Kiev and western Ukraine, which favour integration with the EU, while eastern and southern areas with closer historical, cultural and linguistic ties with Russia are suspicious of both the opposition movement and Brussels.

Councils in western Ukraine have come out in support of the opposition – in the region’s main city Lviv, demonstrators blocked a riot police base to prevent reinforcements being sent to Kiev after Sunday’s violence, which injured about 200 people. “I do not rule out the chance of civil war,” said Vitaliy Klitschko, an opposition leader and former world boxing champion. “But we are doing everything we can to prevent bloodshed.”

Mr Klitschko appealed to the security services, saying that those who “don’t take part in violence against the people, who come out with the protesters” would be guaranteed immunity from prosecution.

Allies of Mr Yanukovich accuse the opposition of instigating unrest and dragging Ukraine towards conflict. “We must immediately stop this mass unrest . . . which fundamentally threaten Ukraine’s national security,” said prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka. “It is not just hooliganism. It is a crime against the state.”

Mr Yanukovich said last night the clashes were “a threat not only to the public in Kiev but all of Ukraine . . . I ask you not to follow those who urge violence, who are seeking to provoke a split between the state and society.”

Mr Yanukovich has suggested establishing a multi-party commission to resolve the crisis, but opposition leaders want to deal directly with him. “The situation has escalated,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. “There’s a radical mood and the authorities aren’t pleased. If they put more pressure on, there could be powerful resistance.”