EU unlikely to impose Ukraine sanctions

01.12.13 @ 17:10

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - Ukrainian opposition leaders have called for EU sanctions on President Viktor Yanukovych after police violence, but the Union is unlikely to respond.

  • Berkut: EU institutions suspect a pro-Russia faction in Yanukovych's circle ordered the assault (Photo: mac_ivan)

The crackdown came at about 4am local time in Kiev on Saturday (30 November), a few hours after Yanukovych told EU leaders in Vilnius that he will not sign an association treaty.

So-called Berkut riot police attacked a small crowd of pro-EU protesters in the city centre.

Video footage shows them beating young women with rubber batons and punching and kicking people on the ground.

The EU, the US and Nato have condemned the incident in separate statements.

"The unjustified use of force goes against the principles to which all participants of the Vilnius summit, including the President of Ukraine, yesterday reaffirmed their adherence," the EU foreign service said.

EU and US ambassadors also met Ukraine's interior minister to ask what happened.

He said police took action because the crowd was blocking the erection of a big Christmas tree and throwing bottles.

But Yanukovych himself and his Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, distanced themselves from the attack.

Both men said they were "outraged."

They also launched a criminal investigation into alleged abuse of office by the people who gave the order.

For his part, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said their reaction looks bogus.

"Interesting sign that Ukraine PM Azarov condemns police violence. But orders for crackdown are most likely to have come from his President," he tweeted on Saturday.

One EU diplomat told EUobserver that EU countries could impose "smart sanctions" if police brutality escalates.

He noted that individual EU states could quietly freeze foreign bank accounts of Yanukovych supporters to put pressure on him to stop.

But there is no appetite for a high-profile decision at the EU level.

One reason is because the EU is wary of playing into Russia's hands by isolating Ukraine.

EU institutions suspect the Berkut order came from police chiefs loyal to a pro-Russian faction in Yanukovych's circle rather than from the President himself.

EU contacts also noted the pro-EU rallies have been infiltrated by "agents provocateurs," sowing confusion.

"I don't think there will be any sanctions. Nobody wants Ukraine to turn into another Belarus," an EU source told this website, referring to President Alexander Lukashenko's regime, which is peppered by EU bans and freezes, but which shows no sign of reform.

"The Belarus example has taught us that sanctions don't work," another EU contact said.

The calls for EU punitive measures came at a mass rally in Kiev on Sunday.

Opposition leaders are also calling for a general strike and for snap elections.

One eyewitness in Kiev on Sunday told EUobserver there were "well in excess of 100,000, maybe more than 200,000" people at the pro-EU demo.

Some Polish VIPs - including former PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski and former European Parliament chief Jerzy Buzek - took part in the event.

It began peacefully.

But a group of demonstrators broke into Kiev city hall at about 2pm local time.

Others clashed with police outside a presidential building.

Some threw molotov cocktails, with reports saying dozens of policemen and protesters ended up in hospital. Foreign journalists also got hurt.

A few thousand people erected barricades at a central square in Kiev overnight.

Protesters began a new march in the government district on Monday demanding that the leadership steps down.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych has called a meeting of his security council, prompting concerns he will declare a state of emergency.

He has also said he will go to Moscow to discuss a new "roadmap" for Russia-Ukraine relations.

Several EU diplomats voiced amazement at the size of Sunday's protests.

They noted that orthodox priests have come out in support of the rallies, in an unusual development.

Contacts said Yanukovych has underestimated the scale of anti-government feeling provoked by his EU decision.

One EU source noted he will find it hard to quash dissent by force even if he wants to.

"You can see from his reaction [to Saturday's police beatings] that he does not feel fully in control of the country. In a place such as Belarus, when police go in to crack heads, Lukashenko always backs them, even if they go too far," the contact said.