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23rd Jun 2018

Merkel backs Ukrainian opposition as army warns of war

  • Most people on the Maidan square are peaceful, Merkel says (Photo: mac_ivan)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown her support behind the Ukrainian opposition and urged President Viktor Yanukovych to deliver on his promises to roll back anti-protest laws.

"We think the opposition's claims are justified. It should be possible to protest freely. It should be possible to express one's opinion. And there is, I think, a great need for change in Ukraine," Merkel said Friday (31 January) during a press conference in Berlin.

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She was speaking alongside Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who had travelled to the German capital to talk exclusively about the situation in Ukraine, where violence continues and where the army on Friday warned of civil war.

The Ukrainian President, who on Thursday went on sick leave, has given an amnesty to demonstrators and rolled back some of the punitive measures against protesters.

But Merkel said this "positive step" was not enough.

She criticised him for asking the opposition to leave the trade unions' building in Kiev, despite paying rent there.

"I have great understanding for the opposition not being able to deliver on this condition. Everyone thinks: how can I protest if there is no possibility to have a warm room, a logistical base?" she said.

Merkel noted that she phoned Yanukovych and told him that asking the opposition to leave its headquarters is a de facto ban on demonstrations.

The chancellor said German civil society was also "very much involved" in Ukraine and promised that "the democratisation of Ukraine will not fail because of lack of support from our side."

Both Merkel and Tusk ruled out sanctions so long as the EU is seeking to mediate between the two sides.

But Tusk admitted that as a neighbouring state, Poland is drafting contingency plans in case civil war breaks out in Ukraine.

"The countries bordering Ukraine, particularly the countries of the Visegrad group [Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic] are of course preparing for various scenarios," Tusk said.

A team of experts from the four Visegrad countries are also drafting contingency plans for potential interruptions in the gas supplies to Europe which transit Ukraine, he added.

"We are focusing on avoiding such situations, that these contingencies are not needed," Tusk said.

Ukrainian opposition leaders, including former boxing star Vitali Klitschko, are expected to travel to Germany for a security conference in Munich also attended by EU, US and Russian politicians.

EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton on Friday said she was "appalled by the obvious signs of prolonged torture" of Ukrainian activist Dmitry Bulatov who was abducted by Yanukovich's security services.

“I was crucified, nailed. They cut my ears and face. And I have wounds all over my body. But thank God, I’m alive,” he told the BBC after being released from captivity.

His AutoMaidan group used cars to ferry supplies to protesters and visit the residences of Ukraine’s leaders accused of inciting violence.

The opposition say seven people have died in the protests. One activist’s body was found dumped in a forest, not far from where Bulatov was found alive.

Pro-European protests have been ongoing since November, when Yanukovych rejected a proposed partnership with the EU, opting for a Russian deal instead.

A German top official in charge of eastern European relations on Thursday blamed the EU for not taking Russia into consideration when offering these partnerships to former Soviet countries like Ukraine.

Romanian President Traian Basescu on Friday also told press in Berlin that it was the "EU's failure" not to have recognised that countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union had a different sensitivity to the EU and Nato than former Communist countries such as Poland, parts of the former Yugoslavia or Romania.

"In our countries there was no opposition to Nato and the EU. But in all the Eastern Partnership countries [Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia] there is a sizeable parliamentary and public opposition to euro-atlantic integration," Basescu said.

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