Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

Opinion

Ukraine on the edge

Today the EU is faced with the biggest crisis on its border since the Balkan Wars.

The brutal and undemocratic actions of Ukraine’s leadership are bringing the country closer and closer to civil war.

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  • EU officials with Yanukovych: the EU has a special responsibility because people are fighting under the EU flag (Photo: eu2013.lt)

The violence has so far left seven protesters dead at the hands of the police, hundreds more have been left injured, while others have disappeared.

Kiev is the epicentre of this battle, but the fight has now spread to the regions. At the time of writing, 10 regional administrations have been taken over by protestors, where so called People's Councils have been established, while attempts to seize a further five continues.

Crucially, on Sunday, citizens in Eastern Ukraine, the stronghold of President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, joined in with massive protests.

The government again reacted with riot police and hired “heavies” to beat them up.

Just two regions are left untouched by large scale protests, leaving President Viktor Yanukovich's ability to cling to power increasingly weak and his legitimacy in ashes.

He underestimated the people: Ukraine is not Russia and it seems this fight will not be over until he is gone. The only question that remains is: How we are going to arrive there?

Will he keep his word on the new compromises - if, of course, the protestors accept what is currently being discussed in the parliament - or will we see further spilling of blood?

Beyond this, is the EU prepared to meet the expectations of Ukrainian society?

The next few days will be crucial and will depend on the outcome of the plenary session held Tuesday (28 January) in the Ukrainian assembly, the Verkhovna Rada.

While there had been talk of calling a state of emergency, it became clear that the ruling Party of Regions would not have enough support.

So far, the parliament has abolished the so called Dictatorship Bills that entered into life last week, and agreed to create a special commission to return to the 2014 constitution, which decreases the President’s power.

Earlier today, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also offered his resignation, which was accepted, triggering a wholesale government reshuffle.

In fact, the government should have resigned long ago. Ukraine’s leadership has brought the country to the brink of civil war before making small concessions. Yanukovych, despite being at the centre of all the protests, still seems to have every intention to staying in power.

When he had ample opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue in the early days of the peaceful protests, he chose to use brutality.

The events of 30 November remain vivid in people’s minds.

As the situation has deteriorated, the resolve of the protestors has hardened.

Only as Yanukovych came under increasing pressure from the international community did he begin to act, engaging in dialogue with the opposition “troika”. But he is merely playing for time.

The offer he put on the table on 25 January, to give opposition MPs high-level posts in his government, could seem reasonable, but he was simply trying to stick a band-aid on a wound that requires major surgery.

Ukrainians will not be satisfied with a few tweaks here and there - they want the entire system overhauled.

This is why protestors viewed Yanukovych's package as a trap, aimed at satisfying international pressure, but ultimately failing to address the serious systemic problems of the country, while allowing the President and his cronies to retain power.

After more than two decades, Ukrainians are sick of institutions and politicians who are more interested in filling their own pockets than the interests of the people that they represent.

They do not trust a police which hides within its ranks groups of thugs and provocateurs deployed by the Party of Regions to humiliate people.

Neither do they believe that a transparent and objective investigation will take place into those that have beaten and tortured them.

Meanwhile, Russia is trying to convince the international community that a group of extremists or far-right radicals are provoking the situation, even though nobody is buying the story.

As Ukraine remains in flames, the efforts of the international community have been not adequate.

Statements and phone calls are welcome, but this is not enough. While the US at least has imposed targeted visa sanctions, the EU seems unwilling to do this.

The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said that sanctions may be put in place, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel contradicted him.

While she is not the only EU leader to oppose sanctions, Germany is the post powerful member state. But the message coming out of Berlin is that they do not consider the situation a danger to Germany’s interests.

The EU’s neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele has visited Ukraine several times, but he needs more support from EU heavyweights.

Today, 45 million Ukrainians are being forced to live without basic human rights, with hundreds of protesters behind bars.

So long as the elite have a publically funded police whose function is to protect them from their own people, freedom will not come.

People are risking their lives in the hope of a brighter future.

Responsibility for the situation lies both within the country, but also with the international community, in particular the EU.

The EU remains a symbol of democracy and freedom. It has a responsibility to act because Ukrainians are fighting under the EU flag.

If the EU fails to react adequately to what we are seeing in Ukraine, the future of democracy and security in the entire region will be in serious jeopardy.

Amanda Paul is an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a think tank in Brussels. Vasyl Belmega is an independent expert of Ukrainian origin

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