A week in Ukraine: seven steps into the unknown
The last seven days has seen claim and counter-claim matched by ever increasing violence
An anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail during clashes with police in Kiev. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Anti-government activists take the energy ministry. Inside, minister Eduard Stavitsky holds a tense conference call. He assures managers of electricity plants, coal mines and nuclear power stations that everything is fine. Then he tells reporters his ministry has been seized by “terrorists”. The Spilna Sprava (Common Cause) protest group is not interested in running the ministry.
Interior minister Vitali Zakharchenko claims one policeman was shot dead in a Kiev suburb last night and three are now hostages of protesters occupying city hall. Activists deny this. Zakharchenko says crisis talks are “futile” because opposition leaders cannot control “radical groups”. Protesters who stay on Independence Square (Maidan) will be considered “extremists” and may be forcibly removed, he warns. Ukraine’s richest “oligarch” Rinat Akhmetov – who is said to control dozens of ruling party deputies – says “there can be only one solution to the political crisis — a peaceful one.”
In the freezing early hours, thousands of people besiege about 200 police officers in the Ukrainian House exhibition hall, between the main protest camp on Independence Square and barricades on Grushevsky Street. Rocks and fireworks are hurled in through the smashed windows, stun grenades fly out in return. Finally the police agree to leave, and there are few injuries.
With a cold week on the streets forecast, protesters now have a big new base in the very heart of Kiev. The “revolutionaries” quickly settle in, establishing a canteen, dormitory, chapel, library, and rallying points for everyone from far-right radicals to Afghan war veterans and volunteers for a “creative division” that is determined to find an arty way out of the crisis.
Columns of “self-defence” groups form on Independence Square, or Maidan, and then march in honour of Mikhail Zhiznevsky, a protester from Belarus shot dead during clashes with riot police that claimed as many as six lives. Thousands attend a memorial service at St Michael’s Cathedral. The security forces deny responsibility for his death, blaming “provocateurs”. Today would have been his 26th birthday.
Spilna Sprava seizes a justice ministry building. Minister Olena Lukash says she will ask Yanukovich to impose a state of emergency unless the activists get out. Klitschko also asks them to leave, and they refuse, highlighting again the split between political leaders and more radical elements on Maidan. Danylyuk’s men pull out later in the day. The state security service says that “along with displays of extremism has come an increase in anonymous threats to blow up hydro-electric and nuclear power stations”. Several major cities report fighting between protesters, riot police and so called titushki — young men allegedly paid to defend the authorities. Protesters now occupy offices of Yanukovich’s hand-picked governors in 10 of Ukraine’s 25 regions. Several more are besieged.
Self-appointed “people’s councils” are running parts of pro-opposition western Ukraine, and Yanukovich’s Regions Party and the Communists have been banned; in pro-Yanukovich Crimea, the far-right Svoboda party is banned.
An emergency session of parliament opens with prime minister Mykola Azarov announcing his resignation, which automatically brings down the whole government. Loud cheers greet the news on Maidan. Regions Party deputies also back the annulment of draconian anti-protest laws they enthusiastically pushed through 12 days earlier. Now they are unacceptable, apparently. Protesters refuse to go home until Yanukovich is ousted. Jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko says: “You have risen up to ‘reset’ the whole system of power and to take back Ukraine – do it!”
In the southern city of Kherson, one of three policemen allegedly stabbed by “radical protesters” dies.
Officials in southern and eastern areas start forming their own “self-defence” groups and warn locals of roaming bands of “fascists” and “extremists” causing chaos around the country. Leonid Kravchuk, the first president of independent post-Soviet Ukraine, says: “In the streets we are basically one step from civil war.” Russian president Vladimir Putin rejects the idea of foreign mediation in Ukraine, but insists Moscow’s $15 billion loan to Kiev and promise of cheaper gas are not affected by the crisis.
Putin changes his mind after his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, says Ukraine is still unable to pay for gas and suggests suspending payment of the agreed loan to Kiev. “That’s sensible,” Putin replies. “Let’s wait for the new Ukrainian government to be formed.” Opposition leaders thank US president Barack Obama for telling Congress: “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully, and have a say in their country’s future.” Protesters on Maidan form a “national guard”, which the government immediately bans. Svoboda members eject Spilna Sprava from the occupied agriculture ministry, exposing more tension in the opposition movement. Amid rumours of a split in the Regions Party, Yanukovich arrives unexpectedly at parliament for talks with deputies. Afterwards, they vote for his preferred version of an amnesty law which demands that protesters leave occupied buildings before detained activists are freed. “Instead of lowering the temperature in society, this is going to raise it,” says Klitschko.
It’s minus 20 in Kiev, colder in the east, and Yanukovich goes on sick leave. Though he has an “acute respiratory illness and high temperature”, he accuses “irresponsible” opposition leaders of escalating the crisis. They say he is doing the same. “I remember from the Soviet Union it’s a bad sign,” Klitschko says of the president’s disappearance, “because always if some Soviet Union leaders have to make an unpopular decision, they go to the hospital”. In the eastern city of Kharkiv, governor Mikhail Dobkin and fellow officials sport T-shirts honouring the “Berkut” riot police that protesters accuse of killing people. Word comes through late at night that opposition activist Dmytro Bulatov has been found eight days after going missing. Covered in blood, he claims to have been kidnapped by men with “Russian accents” who beat and slashed him and hung him up as if to be “crucified”.
Members of the armed forces release a statement denouncing protest actions and urging Yanukovich “to take urgent measures...to stabilise the situation in the country”. Sergei Glazyev, Putin’s chief adviser on Ukraine, says Yanukovich either “puts down the revolt, which is provoked and financed by external forces, or he risks losing power”. The EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton accuses Ukrainian authorities of the “deliberate targeting of organisers and participants in peaceful protests”.
Dozens of protesters are allegedly missing, and Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok blames government “death squads”. Two prominent activists were kidnapped earlier this month: one was badly beaten, the other murdered. Right Sector, a radical opposition group that includes ultra-nationalists, says it wants to join talks between mainstream parties and Yanukovich. If detained protesters are not released, the group warns, it will be “forced to go back on the attack”.