Could the protests in Ukraine spiral out of control?
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The recent clashes in Kiev after two months of peaceful protests underline a growing split between opposition leaders calling for non-violence and infuriated demonstrators, raising fears of further violence in the deeply-divided nation.
Protesters camping out in Kiev’s iconic Independence Square (“Maidan”) despite the freezing cold insist that the government has added fuel to the fire by passing a law that bans nearly all forms of protest.
The new legislation, which came into effect on Tuesday, makes it a crime to wear masks or helmets, bans the dissemination of “slander” on the Internet, and allows for jail terms of up to five years for those who blockade public buildings.
“Anti-government protesters see that the government has made no concessions in two months. In fact, they see more repression with the beatings of protest leaders and now the so-called dictatorship laws”, Petro Burkovskyy, a chief analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, told FRANCE 24.
“That’s why demonstrators used force to show that there will be no obedience and that they would not let the police pick them up and arrest them one by one”, added Burkovskyy.
The opposition’s failure to translate two months of round-the-clock protests into political gains has led to a radicalisation of anti-government protesters. Ukraine’s pro-Europe camp has repeatedly failed to oust the current government, trigger snap elections, or influence President Viktor Yanukovich’s pro-Russian policies.
The AFP news agency reported on Tuesday that two days of clashes had turned an area in the centre of Kiev into “a veritable war zone”, where burnt-out buses separate angry protesters from rows of anti-riot police protecting the nearby parliament building.
Prominent opposition leaders, including boxing champion-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, appeared unable to control the hard core of radical protesters. The violence on the streets echoed palpable frustration in Maidan, where FRANCE24’s correspondent in Kiev, Gulliver Cragg, reported for the first time hearing some demonstrators in the audience booing opposition politicians.
“There is a growing split between the three opposition parties calling for non-violence and the protesters who battled security forces on Sunday. The calculation of those who support violence is that only the threat of physical confrontation will force the ruling elite to allow early elections”, Andreas Umland, a political scientist at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, told FRANCE 24.
On Monday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose mandate expires in March 2015, warned protesters that these acts of “mass rioting” were a threat to the entire country, which remains deeply divided between the pro-European west and the pro-Russian east.
Still, analysts doubt that the radicalisation of the protest will lead to a massive government crackdown.
“In practice, these new laws already mean a state of emergency without declaring it. Security forces have fired rubber bullets at the protesters but if Yanukovych decides to intensify the repression, people will find weapons to fire back”, said Burkovskyy.
Noting how precedent acts of police brutality have reinvigorated the protest movement, Umland said that the government was unlikely to try to clear Maidan by force.
“Ukraine is not like Russia where the government can be sure that security forces will remain loyal and open fire on protesters. The government strategy is to keep the tension high but they don’t want to trigger an all-out conflict.”
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