Back in early November, Germany was confident, even cocky, about the political direction Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich would take going forward. Ukraine would soon be in its camp, officials hinted at the time.
The country’s head of state, Joachim Gauck, had just intervened personally in the case of Yulia Timoshenko, the jailed Ukrainian opposition leader, demanding she be freed to fly to Germany for medical treatment.
In November, German diplomats felt sure this would soon happen. Staff at the German embassy in Kiev told a source that they expected Ukraine to release Timoshenko in a matter of weeks. Freeing her was thought to be one of the last obstacles preventing the country entering an economic and political pact with the European Union.
But Yanukovich had other ideas. His supporters in parliament rejected Timoshenko’s release and the president made the EU deal contingent on a 20 billion euro bailout from Brussels, the German government now says. Kiev is near broke because it cannot effectively finance itself on the markets. When it borrows, the country has to pay higher interest rates than Greece does.
Europe, say German officials, could not accept those terms for a deal then. A big bailout for Ukraine would have required unanimous approval by heads of government. Given Yanukovich’s anti-democratic reputation, the bailout was a politically unpalatable idea. German voters, already angered by bailouts to Southern European EU states, would have viewed the idea very unfavourably indeed.
So Europe said no. And then Yanukovich told the EU he wasn’t interested in a pact. The bloc reacted with a show of outrage. The Lithuanian government released a behind-the-scenes video showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel ticking off Yanukovich at a EU summit on 29 November.
“We see you here,” says Merkel in the video, her face slightly contorted and her body language standoffish. “But we expected more.”
A day later, large protests began in Kiev. And they have since gained momentum with each attempt of the government to disperse the crowds. Protesters’ anger was stoked further when, in mid-December, Vladimir Putin granted Yanukovich the bailout he had sought from Brussels.
Yet only two weeks ago was a turning point reached. The Ukrainian president signed a decree banning several forms of protest. Thereafter, protesters began answering to police truncheons with Molotov cocktails and burning barricades.
On 19 January, the crowds, with far-right extremists on the frontline, tried to break through police lines and storm the country’s parliament. Protesters also attacked opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, arguably the most high profile of Ukraine’s parliamentary opposition leaders abroad.
That night triggered subsequent days of bloodletting in the country. Protesters unleashed a medieval armory — including burning rags, catapults and stones — on police. Officers responded by firing water cannons in sub-zero temperatures.
Just over a week later, facing an unmanageable situation as protests spread throughout the country, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, a man whom demonstrators viewed as a hardliner, resigned his post. The cabinet quit too. And days later, the target of the protest's anger, President Yanukovich, went on sick leave.
The government has made major concessions to protesters. Even so, Europe now worries that the situation in Ukraine is headed towards civil war or revolution. German officials compare developments in the country with those in Russia nearly a century ago:
“In ten of 27 provinces, there’s now been a change in government,” Merkel’s Russia coordinator Gernot Erler told a media conference on Thursday. “In the east, bands of veterans equipped with truncheons have mobilised to stop that happening.”
“In Lviv [a major city in Western Ukraine], a people’s parliament and executive have been formed. They remind me personally of the October [Bolshevik Russian] Revolution.”
All the same, protesters do not share the Bolsheviks’ ideology. Since that new violent phase in the protests began two weeks ago, Kiev’s demonstrators have become more and more radical.
What began as a pro-European movement is now increasingly dominated by the far right. Ukraine’s opposition leaders, European diplomats and politicians assert, have lost control of the crowds. Even the anti-immigration, anti-liberal-democratic Svoboda Party is no longer right wing enough for many people.
Kiev’s Independence Square, at the heart of the protests for over two months, is now in the grip of two opposition factions: Pravy Sektor and Spilna Sprava. The former is a group of far-right militias, its composition ranging from monarchists to football hooligans. The latter is a loose grouping of patriotic but pro-European militants, whose aim is the toppling of the government through occupations.
Correspondents who have visited Independence Square in recent days say the far-right faction is now in charge of guaranteeing the security of the encampment. It is also holding combat training at the camp daily, giving it the potential to recruit more followers from among non-ideological protesters.
In response to those developments on the ground, European governments are increasing support for the parliamentary opposition. Almost two months to the day after Merkel confronted the Ukrainian leader at the EU’s summit in Vilnius, her envoy to Russia said he was hopeful for a return to political stability as soon as possible — to prevent Ukraine going bankrupt. But, he added, only Yanukovich’s departure could assure stability.
“After all that’s happened, I can’t image that the opposition leaders can secure agreement on a political deal that includes Yanukovich remaining as president,” Gernot Erler said on Thursday.
“My friends [in Western Ukraine]say a limit has been reached through this violence. There are fathers of three who say: ‘I have nothing to lose. I’m going to the barricades.’”
With Yanukovich due back at work on Monday and yet more opposition protests over the weekend, there is little indication that either side is capable of negotiating an end to the crisis. In the EU, the optimism of November concerning the country has been supplanted by fear. One of the bloc’s biggest neighbours could very well meltdown.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it — but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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