KIEV, Ukraine -- Only a few weeks ago the dismissal of the Ukrainian government by President Viktor Yanukovych and his offer to appoint an opposition leader as the country’s new prime minister would have had an electric effect.
It would have been cheered by protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square (the Maidan) as an important victory.
It might even have persuaded them to unblock the roads in the capital.
Not any more.
On January 28th Mr Yanukovych at last surrendered Nikolai Azarov, a long-serving but ineffectual prime minister.
But that was met with a shrug of the shoulders by those manning the barricades in Kiev.
Arseny Yatseniuk, an opposition leader, turned down the offer to become prime minister.
Two days later, news came that Mr Yanukovych himself was taking a mysterious sick leave.
That might be a sign that the pressure has got to him; just as likely, though, he is lying low and marshalling his forces for a crackdown.
Over the past ten days the barricades have grown higher and have also moved a lot closer to the government’s offices.
Fortified by the remains of burned-out police vans and sandbags, they now look less like a decoration and more like the front line in a war.
After violent clashes with the police on January 22nd, the atmosphere has become more militant and sombre.
The men who guard the new border wear protective helmets and keep a wartime discipline.
The slogans by which protesters greet each other—“glory to heroes, death to the enemy”—sound alarmingly serious.
The “enemy” on the other side of the barricades is hundreds of riot police backed by armoured personnel-carriers.
In the past two weeks at least five people have been killed in clashes and another 20 have gone missing.
The exact number of injured is unknown, because most refuse to go to hospital for fear of being abducted by pro-government thugs.
Two men were kidnapped from a hospital last week.
One, later discovered dead, bore evidence of torture and had duct tape over his face.
The other was badly beaten but survived.
By mid-week there were no further scenes of actual fighting.
Instead, the two sides just watched each other.
But the truce does not mean the confrontation is at an end.
Mr Yanukovych’s agreement to give up his government and to get the Verhovna Rada (parliament) to repeal the dictatorial anti-protest laws that provoked the clashes in the first place gives some hope that more fighting can be avoided.
The protesters have left some of the government buildings that they occupied a few days ago.
The risk of martial law has diminished, though it has not evaporated entirely.
“We have taken one step back from the edge of a precipice,” says Petro Poroshenko, a business tycoon and member of parliament who is actively supporting the Maidan protesters.
One way out of this crisis, says Mr Poroshenko, would be constitutional reform that would deprive Mr Yanukovych of excessive presidential power and move Ukraine towards the more balanced system it had before.
“The situation unfolds so fast that making any predictions is impossible,” says Yulia Mostovaya, editor of Zerkalo Nedeli, Ukraine’s best-informed and most influential weekly.
The events that have unfolded in Kiev over the past ten days have surprised everyone, including Mr Yanukovych, opposition leaders and the Kremlin in Moscow.
The passage of repressive laws, which were copied from (and possibly prompted by) the Kremlin, was supposed to give Mr Yanukovych a legal basis for repression.
The violent attack on the police and the incineration of their buses on January 22nd, which may have been the work of agents provocateurs, were meant to yield television pictures that could, in the eyes of the world, justify a crackdown.
What nobody expected, says Ms Mostovaya, was that this provocation would spark genuine unrest and be backed by thousands of new protesters.
Angry at Mr Yanukovych’s laws and fed up with the ineffectiveness of the main opposition leaders, ordinary Ukrainians have moved into the streets.
Suddenly, instead of a crudely planned special operation, Mr Yanukovych is faced with a revolutionary situation.
A genuine prospect of civil war has changed the attitude of all involved.
Mr Yanukovych has come under intense pressure from the Americans, who have revoked visas for some officials and threatened wide sanctions if the president uses violence—a step which the European Union has conspicuously failed to follow.
He is also facing a revolt among the oligarchs who control the media, as well as parliamentarians who now see Mr Yanukovych as a risk.
They have long been aggrieved by the way he has allowed his son and close friends, collectively known as the “family”, to grab power and money in the country, leaving oligarchs with the crumbs on the table.
They have exploited the crisis to redress the balance of power.
Some have allegedly used their influence and money across Ukraine to facilitate “spontaneous” takeovers of local administrations.
With so many police deployed in Kiev, Mr Yanukovych lacks the force with which to fight back.
While the president was blaming Western secret services for his troubles, Alexander Lukashenko, a dictator who keeps next-door Belarus under his thumb, offered his own explanation for his neighbour’s problems.
“This is what happens when the country is divided between clans. When your children start doing business—expect trouble.”
Or, as Ms Mostovaya puts it, “in a fight between the people and the regime, the oligarchs scored over the family.”
Even Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch and the president’s closest ally, appears to be distancing himself from Mr Yanukovych and is refusing to be tainted by violence.
It is also uncertain how far Russia’s Vladimir Putin is prepared to back him.
Commenting on Russia’s support for Ukraine at a summit with the EU in Brussels on January 28th, Mr Putin appealed to Ukrainians over Mr Yanukovych’s head.
He said Russia’s help was to the nation, not to a particular government.
A day later Mr Putin said the Kremlin would wait to see the shape of the new government before restarting its financial aid.
In the meantime reports surfaced that Russia had unofficially renewed sanctions and Ukrainian goods were getting stuck at the Russian border.
Mr Putin would almost certainly have liked Mr Yanukovych to act even more aggressively, moving him closer to Russia, but he might now see him as a lame duck.
The Ukrainian president may soon find that Mr Putin cares a lot more about Russia’s influence over Ukraine than about his staying in power.
All this makes Mr Yanukovych weaker.
Yet his sick leave does not mean that he is about to surrender.
On January 29th he pressed the Rada to reject opposition demands for an unconditional release of arrested protesters, insisting that the protesters must first leave all government buildings.
He is still trying to split and discredit the opposition, an entirely feasible endeavour, bearing in mind its leaders’ opaque relations with the oligarchs and Mr Yanukovych’s own circle.
But this may not be of much use to him.
There are still questions about how much influence opposition leaders have over the Maidan.
The people on the barricades are not about to go home and they will not accept Mr Yanukovych’s authority.
The longer he waits, the less impressed they will be by any of his concessions.
Source: The Economist