Upper Pechersk, is one of the oldest and most respectable residential areas in Ukraine’s capital Kiev. Historic buildings, neat streets, fancy stores, beautiful parks and numerous offices of the so-called “governmental quarter” create this special island of prosperity in a country where more than one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
After the January clashes between protesters and police on Hrushevskogo St, where the parliament and the cabinet of ministers’ buildings are located, this neighbourhood has turned into a militarised zone, with police barricades blocking off the streets.
On February 18 the area looked like a real warzone after a two-week truce expired. On February 20, after another short-lived police withdrawal, violence erupted again.
With every second the situation is worsening. President Viktor Yanukovich still has a chance to stopping the bloodshed by calling off the police and stepping down. Yet this scenario is unlikely. Yanukovych keeps blaming the protesters for breaking the truce and for the growing number of casualties.
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The temporary retreat of police from the protest-swept Kiev downtown in the morning of February 20 was nothing but a manoeuvre to bring more reinforcements. More armed police forces were being mobilised, while Maidan protesters were re-building barricades and getting ready to resist the upcoming attacks.
After the first kidnappings, tortures and killings of protestors in January 2014 many western leaders said that Yanukovich had crossed the line by having “authorised” the police for violent actions. The recent spate of violence re-confirmed that the president has not retreated on the use of force.
Policemen, special force and “titushki” (government-hired bandits used for “dirty jobs” such as attacks on protesters, journalists and peaceful citizens) were given a lot of leeway to deal with the protests. Regular police forces and riot police were equipped with sound grenades, rubber bullets and guns. There have even been reports[Ua] that snipers have taken positions on buildings close to the protesters’ camp.
The first three bodies with bullet wounds were brought into a temporary protesters’ camp early in the afternoon. At the same time police attacked the Maidan tent camp. After destroying several barricades they drove out[Ua] protesters from the occupied Ukrainian House Expo centre and the trade union building, which was used as the protesters’ headquarters, press centre, hospital and kitchen.
The trade union building was set on fire. People who were trapped inside had to escape through windows. The riot police were repeatedly attacking the perimeter of the Maidan during the early hours of February 19, yet the camp stood up to the attack. During the day on February 19, the official death toll rose to 26 killed [Ua], including 10 policemen; hundreds were injured.
Violence continued over the next 24 hours and the morning of February 20 brought more deadly news. An AP correspondent counted 18 bodies of protesters with lethal bullet wounds, while other reporters said they counted more than 30. Most of them were killed by sniper shots, while a great number of civilians, including medical personnel, were wounded. By the end of the week, the health ministry estimated that more than 75 people had died in the clashes.
Kiev paralysed, regions on fire
During all three months of protests Kiev lived its usual life. Apart from the main street Khreshchatyk and Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where the protesters’ camp is located, the rest of city was functioning in its regular mode. Stores and coffee shops located metres away from protesters’ tents were serving their customers. Traffic on Khreshchatyk was closed, but the metro and nearby bus routes were functioning as usual.
On February 18 everything changed. At first the municipal services shut down [Ua] all the metro stations in downtown in order to stop people from coming to the Maidan. Later that day all Kiev metro stations were closed, which paralysed its biggest public transportation artery.
According to some activists who posted online, there were limited internet and mobile phone services in downtown Kiev at some point. Inter-city connection suddenly collapsed: Kiev-bound trains from some western regions were cancelled, as a response to people’s mobilisation. Road police limited traffic entering Kiev and was stopping [Ua] cars at the major checkpoints. All of that looked like unofficial state of emergency
Events in Kiev stirred up the regions. The killing of protesters fuelled anti-government mood in western and central Ukraine, where the majority of the population is opposes president Yanukovych and his team. People, who could not go to the capital, released their frustration by occupying or assaulting local state administrations and offices of law enforcement structures. The assault of the SBU (State Security Service of Ukraine) office in Khmelnytsky cost the life of one of the protestors.
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Pro-Russian eastern Ukraine and Crimea acted totally different. The situation on the Maidan provoked a new wave of separatist talks in Crimea. Some members of the Crimean parliament suggested [Ua] Russia should annex the peninsula; others demanded more powers to the local government and parliament.
No will for political agreement
Ukraine reach this point of paralysis and violence because, as many predicted, Yanukovich did not take seriously the dialogue with the opposition. Key political demands voiced by the protesters included constitutional reform taking Ukraine back to a mixed parliamentary-presidential system, reduction of presidential powers, and early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Yanukovich refused to fulfil those. His biggest concession was a “technocratic” government in which the most notorious figures would be replaced. The Maidan was not happy with the “cosmetic changes” and kept on insisting for a total makeover of the political system.
On February opposition deputies tried [Ua] to make the necessary amendments in parliament but their efforts failed. They proposed [Ua] two drafts: The so-called Constitutional Act and parliamentary resolution on the constitution of 1996. The parliament speaker, one of the most influential people in the Party of Regions, Volodymyr Rybak refused [Ua] to register the documents, saying that there was no such thing as a “constitutional act”, which could be registered and submitted for consideration and voting. Thus Yanukovich basically destroyed the ground for possible peaceful solution by hands of his party fellows.
After the violence February 18-20, the opposition leaders called for an extraordinary parliamentary session, as a last attempt to come to a compromise and stop the escalation of violence and bloodshed.
Anyone who is more or less familiar with current Ukrainian politics knows that if there is a will there is a way, and if the incumbent president wants to push any decision through the parliament, he won’t be stopped by such a minor impediment as legislative procedures.
In fact, Yanukovich has demonstrated that he is able to keep exceptional party discipline through threats and intimidation. In late January, when the parliament was considering several draft laws that would amnesty the jailed protesters and introduce constitutional changes that would bring in effect the Constitution 2004, he made sure none of his party members would support them. According to a report [Ua] published by the Ukrainian investigative journalism site Insider, Yanukovich was threatening the pro-presidential majority with criminal cases, if they voted for amendments suggested by the opposition.
Recent deterioration of the political situation both in Kiev and in the regions indicates that chances for a peaceful political solution are close to zero. Although the opposition leaders and international community keep calling for a political solution, the compromise would require serious concessions from each party and such won’t be easily made.
Olesia Oleshko is a Ukrainian journalist. She holds an MA in Journalism from Indiana University (USA).
Editor’s note: This article has been updated on 21/2/2014 to reflect the official death toll from the protests.