After a fortnight of relative calm, Kiev is burning again, following the most violent clashes since anti-government protests began three months ago. Any hope from Russian authorities that media attention would be diverted by the Sochi Olympics is over. After a calmer Wednesday, this morning fights restarted and, according to unofficial statistics, the new death toll has reached as high as 50 (mostly protestors, but also police and journalists, with these numbers likely to rise again). Over a thousand people were wounded in a failed attempt by government forces to clear the protest camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).
For the last three months the Maidan has acted like a city in its own right, with its own infrastructure, food and medical help points. Now this image has been replaced with photographs of the scorched Maidan obscured by plumes of smoke, of barricades, burning cars, people with bloody wounds and bandaged heads, some lying on the ground, having been beaten or even killed.
The reason for yesterday’s outbreak is the breakdown of negotiations between the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions and the opposition leaders. Specifically, the problems have emerged over attempts to have the 2004 constitution reinstated, removing the changes instituted two years ago to strengthen presidential power. This follows a few recent government compromises, including the rescinding of the harsh anti-protest laws which were voted into existence only weeks earlier, and which led to Maidan’s radicalisation.
After the first killings in January it was clear the protesters were not going to give up ground, and nor were the authorities. In this way, Ukraine reached a deadlock. This week, around 10,000 protesters (largely from the far-right Svoboda party) calling themselves the “Peace Offensive”, went to the parliament and, after the failure of negotiations, tried to storm it. This might have triggered the government’s decision to finally clear the Maidan.
The level of violence is unprecedented in independent Ukraine. Both sides are armed, and the number of dead policemen suggests a black-and-white reading of the protests, in which the only the protesters suffer, is inaccurate. Nobody is sure whether it was the police or the protesters who first used violence on the day now known as “Black Tuesday”.
The fights that have taken place over the last two months have prepared people for what increasingly resembles a civil war. On Hrushevskogo Street tyres were burnt and truncheons, stones, grenades and Molotov cocktails flew, somebody started shooting with real guns. Trucks used to isolate protesters were destroyed and barricades were partly dismantled by riot police. In the evening, police stormed Maidan, burning tents and using water cannons. The Trade Union headquarters, which has long served as the Maidan HQ, was set on fire.
Since Tuesday, the whole city has been shut down. Martial law has not yet officially been declared, but there’s been a ban on entering Kiev since Tuesday midnight, the Metro was shut down, the oligarch Petr Poroshenko’s critical Channel 5 was taken off air, and telephones are not working. Under special “anti-terrorist” laws armed forces can now legally check and use weapons against the civilians. Vehicle traffic has been heavily restricted. Protesters are now trying to convince the police to join their side. Despite Yanukovych again talking to the opposition all through Wednesday, the short truce is gone and it seems that nobody, including the opposition, has any control over what is happening.
This is a civil war inside Europe, though nobody is yet admitting to it. Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. As of now, President Obama has strongly criticised Russian support of the crackdown.
Yanukovych’s dependence on Russia is overwhelming. He needs support in the upcoming presidential election in 2015 and is clearly dependent on Putin’s financial help (Yanukovych is set to place a pro-Russian PM to replace the former Ukrainian PM Mikolai Azarov). Putin, on the other hand, may be worried about how the protest in Kiev might influence opposition in Russia. The western portrayal of Maidan, meanwhile, has shifted from admiration for the “pro-European” protesters to a belated recognition of the major role played on the ground by the far right, whether parliamentary (the Svoboda party) or otherwise (the insurgent Right Sector). This shifting of the moral perception of Maidan came exactly when Yanukovych and co needed it – to help break the protests and support for them – after all, Yanukovych used the presence of “extremists” as the pretext for the crackdown.
The reality is that neither the EU nor the US really cares if Ukraine becomes more nationalistic or more pro-Russian and the recent recognition of the role of the far right in protests has served as an excuse to do nothing. What high officials care about, as the recent scandal with the US envoy Victoria Nuland and her open contempt for Europe shows, is geopolitics and relations with Russia. We must remember that the EU’s offer to Yanukovych, which kick-started Maidan, was predicated on an already economically-devastated country accepting IMF austerity measures, and had no agreement on visas or travel to the EU, and so would have left Ukraine still isolated in Europe.
Now EU countries, led by neighbouring Poland, have suggested sanctions be placed on Ukraine – yet nobody placed sanctions on Egypt in August, when over 600 protesters were killed. This should remind us that we hold post-communist countries to different standards. Ukraine is still treated like a pawn, both by Russia and by the “west”.
Given the policy of the Ukrainian government has oscillated between brutality and weakness, it’s not clear if Yanukovych will simply listen to Putin and continue to brutally suppress the protest. The only possible rival candidate to Yanukovych is Vitaly Klitchko, the popular leader of Udar party, who carries the positive image of not being associated with the far right. He has a German residence permit, so his participation in the election is uncertain.
The opinion polls show that half the society still doesn’t support the protests anyway. Yet the participants now have the massive boost of being the Maidan heroes, who “fought for freedom” and this attitude, regardless of when and how Maidan will be suppressed, may inspire others across the country.