Ukraine's crisis opens rifts among its revolutionaries

The Maidan movement feels sidelined as Kiev fights emergencies on many fronts

 A Ukrainian student plays a piano painted in Ukraine’s national colours in front of city hall near  Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.  Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

A Ukrainian student plays a piano painted in Ukraine’s national colours in front of city hall near Independence Square in Kiev yesterday. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 01:00

The pavement cafes and souvenir stalls are doing brisk trade on Kiev’s Independence Square. But the people sipping coffee in the sun have an unusual view. To one side, barricades of old tyres and rusty metal still fence off the square that locals call Maidan. On the other, an ageing armoured personnel carrier and a graffiti-covered water cannon truck loom over a collection box for Ukraine’s embattled military.

The tables of tourist tat also speak of extraordinary times: postcards of Kiev’s churches have been ousted by fridge magnets showing the Maidan in flames and hailing revolutionary nationalist group Right Sector, and by doormats emblazoned with the scowling face of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich.


Celebration crushed
A stage still stands in the middle of the square, but where Yanukovich and his cronies were lambasted before fleeing last month, now Russian president Vladimir Putin is the main target, for occupying Crimea in a move that crushed the revolutionaries’ fleeting celebration.

But Putin is not the only one to feel the Maidan’s sting. Dissent towards Ukraine’s new leaders is growing, as they struggle to fight crises on several fronts: an annexed Crimea, a threatening Russia, unstable eastern regions, impending bankruptcy and dwindling public trust.

As Ukraine’s soldiers and their families traipsed out of Crimea yesterday, defence minister Ihor Tenyukh was sacked by parliament, carrying the can for what many Ukrainians saw not as a policy of peaceful resistance to Crimea’s occupation but a show of utter confusion and inaction.

“We gave up Crimea to the Russians thanks to our unprofessionalism. We gave up Crimea thanks to our indecision,” independent deputy Igor Palytsya said of Ukraine’s loss of the Black Sea region, which has demoralised military men and civilians alike.

Vitali Klitschko, leader of the liberal Udar party, also criticised officials who were his allies during the revolution. He described their handling of the Crimea crisis as “slow and weak”, and said key decisions were “made behind the scenes and are not clear to the public”.

Klitschko also suggested changing the speaker of parliament, who happens to be the country’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchinov.


Rising public anger
He asked the assembly for a vote of confidence, and received almost unanimous backing. But squabbling among politicians who strove together to oust Yanukovich reflects rising public anger on key issues, from the suitability of several ministers and regional governors, to the lack of any obvious progress in finding those responsible for the deaths of more than 100 protesters.

A potentially dangerous rift widened yesterday between the interior ministry and Right Sector, which is suspicious of the government and has rejected calls to give up its weapons. It is not clear how well armed the group is, or how many members it has, but it is growing.

Officials said police had shot dead Right Sector activist Oleksandr Muzychko yesterday when he fired at them while resisting arrest. But Right Sector accused police of murder and interior minister Arsen Avakov of “counter-revolutionary activity” and doing the bidding of Russia’s security services.

Roman Koval, who called himself a co-ordinator for Right Sector in the region where Muzychko was killed, threatened Avakov with revenge.

The minister, in turn, vowed to disarm all illegal armed groups, including Right Sector, which helped guard Maidan and fought with riot police during three months of protests.

“Some ministers no longer take our calls, and the government is not listening to the people,” warned singer and activist Ruslana Lyzhychko. “It’s dangerous, and we need to build a bridge between officials and the public. The authorities must work with Maidan.”

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