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 Bloodshed and bluster in Ukraine

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PostSubject: Bloodshed and bluster in Ukraine   Sat Feb 22, 2014 8:27 am

Editorial: Bloodshed and bluster in Ukraine





Published — Friday 21 February 2014

The truce agreed late Wednesday night between Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition politicians representing the street demonstrators, may possibly see a suspension of the violence which has seen 26 lives lost and 400 injured since Monday. But there is no guarantee.

The core demand of the protesters has long been that Yanukovich himself, who was elected in 2010, should stand down and there be fresh parliamentary and presidential elections. Popular fury was unleashed when the president abandoned a plan for closer integration with the EU, choosing instead to take Russian funds to bail out an already-failing economy.

There were huge peaceful protests around the country, the biggest of which was in Kiev’s Independence Square. When it became clear that, despite sub-zero temperatures, the demonstrators would continue to occupy the square, Yanukovich sent in riot police. Their tactics were brutal. Moreover the president chose to condemn the protestors as terrorists and insects. This caused widespread despair among previously uncommitted Ukrainians. They joined the demonstrators. Even ethnic Russians in eastern cities showed their disgust by occupying government buildings.

On Tuesday night Yanukovich said the protests amounted to a coup. He said that the police needed to be supported by the armed forces. Opposition politicians took this as being tantamount to a declaration of civil war. That may well have been the view of head of the armed force general staff, General Volodymyr Zamana, who is rumored to have refused the order his men to attack civilians. Yanukovich dismissed him, replacing him with navy chief, Admiral Yuri Ilyin.

Before the truce was declared, all seemed prepared for a terrible showdown. It may yet happen. Little noted in Western press reports is the presence on neo-Nazi thugs among the demonstrators. These people last came to world attention during international football matches, when they screamed monkey noises at black players. While few in number, their use of fireworks and petrol bombs has been a major provocation. Moderate protestors have sought to control them — throwing them out of one government building that they had decided to occupy.

Trying to air-brush these hooligans out of the picture is a mistake. But it can be explained. The EU and the United States are both threatening sanctions unless the violence stops. Whenever the international community sets off for the moral high ground, it can be expected to ignore inconvenient truths. First off, the violence this week has not been one-sided. Ten of the 28 dead are policemen. Then there is the fact that Yanukovich and his Parliament were chosen three years ago in elections that were considered basically free and fair. He and his legislators therefore have a democratic mandate. For sure their handling of the protests has been inept, even perhaps criminal. But that is a matter for a court to decide at some future date. What the international community has to figure out is how to work with a legitimate government, whose interpretation of what is happening on its streets, is very different from that in Brussels and Washington.

Economic and administrative sanctions are threatened. Ukrainian politicians and people associated with the government have already had visa restrictions imposed on them by US. In the long-term, it is possible that sanctions might have an effect, though Russia can be expected to do everything possible to circumvent them. It is however hard to see what impact they can have right now on a beleaguered Yanukovich government. The foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland all went on Thursday to Kiev to see for themselves what is happening and to talk to both government and opposition figures. The visit will have given the Ukrainian president a chance to gauge the commitment of European states to the very notion of sanctions. The Poles are known to be unhappy with the idea. Without consensus, the EU will be once again blustering.

Moscow of course will see the moves by Washington and Brussels as an attempt to strong-arm Yanukovich into closer union with Europe. It certainly seems absurd that by sending three foreign ministers to Kiev on Thursday, the EU should be trying to act as honest brokers. It would be far more appropriate for the UN to be sending a negotiator of the same standing as Lakhdar Brahimi, to find some common ground between the two sides. Comparing Ukraine with Syria is perhaps not so far-fetched. After all President Barack Obama has just warned Yanukovich “that there will be consequences” if his administration “steps over the line.” Obama, of course, most famously made a similar promise over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. So Viktor Yanukovich has nothing to worry about from the United States.

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