Signs Of Momentum Shifting To Protesters In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Two large, swirling crowds faced off in Kiev on Saturday in public squares less than a quarter of a mile apart.

Riot police officers stood guard on Saturday at a rally supporting the government as protesters against it stood behind a fence.

One was the huge, antigovernment, pro-Europe demonstration that has electrified this capital since late last month.

The other was composed of tens of thousands who poured into central Kiev for a counter rally in support of the embattled president, Viktor F. Yanukovich.

By evening, the pro-government crowd had disappeared for the night, leaving the police guarding a virtually empty plaza.

The antigovernment protesters in Independence Square, by comparison, were revving up, waiting with excitement for a performance by one of Ukraine’s most popular rock bands ahead of another night out in the cold.

The contrast was one of several signals that momentum in the uprising over the president’s refusal to sign political and trade accords with the European Union might be shifting.

After weeks in which Mr. Yanukovich — and Russian opponents of the accords — appeared to have the upper hand, there were signs that the president was no longer so sure of himself.

Mr. Yanukovich, who had initially been dismissive of the protest movement and even flew off for a trip to China, met with opposition leaders on Friday and announced Saturday that he had indefinitely suspended two officials, the Kiev city manager, Oleksandr Popoov, and deputy national security chief, Volodomyr Sivkovych, over allegations about their role in a violent crackdown by the police on protesters on Nov. 30.

A statement on the president’s website said they were suspected of violating citizens’ constitutional rights.

It was unclear that either of the men had ordered the use of force, but the need to show officials’ being held accountable underscored the increasing pressure that Mr. Yanukovich is facing to make concessions.

“Everything that has happened in the last 24 to 48 hours is breaking in favor of a resolution toward the Maidan,” said Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine with the Atlantic Council of the United States, referring to Independence Square. 

Particularly significant, said Mr. Karatnycky, who was in Kiev last week, was the shifting support among oligarchs who control several factions in Parliament — a move he said was probably encouraged by the continued strength of the crowds on the street.

On Friday, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest man and a close ally of Mr. Yanukovich, issued a statement in support of the antigovernment protest movement. 

It was the clearest sign yet that the oligarchs are worried about the continuing instability as well as the country’s deepening financial crisis, and that they might back some changes at the highest levels of government.

After Mr. Yanukovich barely budged during the talks with the opposition on Friday, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the leader in Parliament of the opposition Fatherland Party, said that he was working with lawmakers in the majority Party of Regions, normally controlled by Mr. Yanukovich, and that he hoped to soon have support to oust Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and other ministers.

The seeming shift in the dynamic of the political crisis comes as the West scrambles to regroup after Russia and its hard realpolitik outmaneuvered Europe, which had relied on its soft power.

For both sides, the stakes are high.

Western Europe is emerging from a five-year fiscal malaise and is intent on renewing the eastward export of Western values; Russia is intent on blocking that advance and guarding its sphere of influence.

“We went to a knife fight with a baguette,” said Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Kremlin had threatened trade sanctions if Ukraine signed the pacts with the European Union.

Moscow also indicated a potential willingness to spend billions in a bailout for Ukraine to protect its own military and financial interests, which include Black Sea naval bases and gas shipments.

Western officials, by contrast, have mostly confined themselves for weeks to insisting that Mr. Yanukovich listen to his many citizens who want closer ties to Western Europe.

Many officials believe the advantages of Western integration are self-evident and do not require a hard sell, especially given past experience in the Baltics and Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor.

“This is not about getting to East or getting to West,” the European Union ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, said in an interview in his office here on Friday.

“This is about what this country really needs.”

Of course, Russia could still win out in the battle for influence.

Mr. Yanukovich is due to meet with its president, Vladimir V. Putin, on Tuesday.

They have been in negotiations over a desperately needed financial aid package that could include discounts on natural gas and, perhaps, a bridge loan.

And, at least so far, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over its own bailout package remain stalled, in part because of terms Mr. Yanukovich finds unappetizing as he looks to a potentially difficult campaign ahead of elections in 2015.

While officials in Brussels and Washington have said they are working with the I.M.F. to develop a package that Mr. Yanukovich could accept, they say flexibility is limited by Ukraine’s poor track record in carrying out reforms demanded in exchange for previous aid.

The I.M.F. board will discuss Ukraine’s situation at a meeting in Washington on Monday.

Mr. Karatnycky, of the Atlantic Council, said that street protesters seemed to be gaining the advantage and may have rescued Europe from a foreign policy failure. 

“Europe and U.S. policy was on the verge of a colossal geopolitical mistake,” he said.

“The policy was only vindicated by the people of Ukraine. They bought into the shining City on a Hill even if their leaders didn’t.”

The Western response to the situation in Ukraine has also been tempered by concerns about Georgia and Moldova, which are also working toward accords with Europe.

Moldova, in particular, is expected to come under similar pressure from Russia next year, and officials in Brussels and Washington have said repeatedly they will not get into bidding wars with Moscow.

On Saturday, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, joined a parade of Western officials who have been arriving in Kiev to show support for the protesters.

He had dinner with three opposition leaders in Parliament who are also protest organizers: Mr. Yatsenyuk; Vitali Klitschko, who leads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform; and Oleg Tyagnibok of Svoboda.

In recent days, Russian officials have largely smirked as their unnerved Western counterparts have rushed here, visiting the occupied Independence Square in support of the demonstrators, then meeting for hours with Mr. Yanukovich, only to emerge frustrated.

Yuri Ushakov, Mr. Putin’s senior foreign policy adviser, said last week in an interview that Russia was merely protecting its own interests and that Western officials were meddling in Ukraine’s affairs.

“The West is actively playing at the Ukrainian field,” Mr. Ushakov said.

“There is no doubt about it. Who is in Kiev on the daily basis, who meets the leadership and the opposition, who lays down demands and sets various conditions?” he asked. “It’s not Russia.”

Source: The New York Times


Igor Skakovsky said…
Financing of Ukrainian industries for the next five years with the annual infusion of USD27bn should be included in the AA with EU and ready for March signature. That will provide assurance that Mr. Yanukovych signs the historic document. Suspension of negotiations by EU may back fire because it creates atmosphere of distrust, and unexpected negative consequences may follow if talks are not renewed in next 30 days.