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25th May 2019

Ukraine violence catches EU by surprise

  • Ukrainian opposition MPs Klitschko (l) and Yatsenuk (r) in the Bundestag on Monday (Photo: Valentina Pop)

A sudden eruption of violence in Kiev, leaving six protesters and one policeman dead, has taken EU diplomats by surprise.

The fighting broke out on Tuesday (18 February) morning when riot police confronted anti-government demonstrators as they marched toward the parliament building in the city centre.

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The march was designed to put pressure on the parliament speaker to introduce a motion on constitutional reform into the order of the day.

Fighting quickly spread and, in the next few hours, “at least” six protesters and one policeman were killed, the BBC reports. More than 180 people were injured and the HQ of the ruling Party of the Regions was set on fire.

Authorities have issued an ultimatum threatening a mass crackdown if protesters do not disperse by 6pm Kiev time.

But opposition leaders have called on more people to come to their camp, the Maidan, while images on social media are showing police squads carrying molotov cocktails and AK47s into the riot zone.

Andrew Wilson, an analyst at the London-based think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), spoke to EUobserver from the scene.

“There are ambulances everywhere. The metro has stopped and shops have closed early … a direct assault on the Maidan is possible, but it would be very costly for all concerned,” he said.

The events met with calls for restraint from European diplomats.

A member of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s cabinet phoned the office of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier phoned acting Ukrainian foreign minister Leonid Kozhara, saying: "I urge the opposing groups in Ukraine to return urgently to the path of recent days and talk about a political solution."

EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton also said in a statement: “I condemn all use of violence, including against public or party buildings … Political leaders must now assume their shared responsibility to rebuild trust.” She added in a video clip from Vienna, where she is chairing nuclear talks with Iran: "I am also very concerned about the ultimatum to stop this by force."

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski noted that Tuesday’s events came despite expectations the two sides were nearing a compromise on an interim government and on curbing Yanukovych’s powers. “Ukraine seems poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of negotiated success,” Sikorski said on Twitter.

A diplomatic source in one EU embassy in Kiev told this website that EU capitals underestimated the popular opposition’s mistrust of “elite” opposition MPs, such as Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to make deals on their behalf.

"The EU was happy because it already saw the light the end of the tunnel. But it seems the people did not endorse compromises which were negotiated between discredited authorities and a corrupt and equally discredited opposition,” the contact said.

Yatsenyuk and a fellow MP, ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko, an opposition star who has distanced himself from the negotiations, visited Berlin on Monday.

They met with Chancellor Angela Merkel for one hour, as well as with Steinmeier and leading German MPs. Speaking in the Bundestag afterward, they said they were grateful for the show of support by "one of the most influential politicians in the world."

But Klitschko's plea for Germany to back sanctions against regime officials went unanswered.

Sources in the German foreign ministry say Berlin would consider sanctions only if violence keeps escalating and there is no chance of a political solution.

For the ECFR’s Andrew Wilson, Yanukovych crossed the red line on Tuesday.

Looking back to an EU foreign ministers’ agreement last week, he noted: “The key phrase last Monday was that the EU would 'respond quickly' if there is 'deterioration.' Clearly there is deterioration. If we do not regard this as deterioration, we will lose all credibility in what is already a looming disaster for European soft power.”

He said the first step should be anti-money laundering investigations by Austria and the UK into assets of Yanukovych allies.

With Ashton’s communique referring to “violence … including [by protesters] against public or party buildings,” Wilson noted that “one should avoid moral equilateralism” which puts the authorities and the demonstrators on par.

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