KIEV – After two months of mostly peaceful protests, Ukraine has been gripped by the most serious and violent protests since its independence. (Authorities on Wednesday confirmed at least two deaths in overnight clashes in Kiev)
While the capital is the identifiable epicenter of these protests, and there are some recent signs that the government may seek negotiations, the situation is increasingly spiraling out of control. The ultranationalist “Right Sector” movement is no longer answering to the leaders of the larger opposition movement, and is calling for a nationalist revolution, saying that is necessary to “combat the dictatorship.”
The last chance for peace in Ukraine might be the negotiations between the government and the peaceful opposition, but would require serious concessions from both sides.
The proof that the protests on the Maidan is no longer peaceful came when activists of the Right Sector (Pravyj) became violent with law enforcement, ignoring the calls from the opposition leaders. The street fight in the center of Kiev, which broke out on the eve of the eighth planned peaceful protest, spread onto Grushevski street, home of the Ukrainian government buildings. The Right Sector even used giant catapults in an attempt to storm the government buildings.
Right Sector leaders say that this is “a normal reaction to the establishment of a dictatorship.” They also insist that after the government adopted several laws severely restricting freedom and rights in Ukraine, the time for peaceful protest ended.
The Right Sector, which is comprised of several different nationalist parties, had emerged on December 11th when law enforcement tried to force protests out of the Maidan, and until recently provided security for the Maidan protests and for the opposition headquarters.
The Right Sector has their headquarters in the same building as the rest of the opposition movement, and are financed through donations, mostly from protesters. Stepan Kubiv, a commander from the Right Sector, says that they are collecting around $30,000 to $40,000 daily, but that is still not sufficient to finance operations.
Even before the recent outbursts of violence, Right Sector had addressed the people of Ukraine to make clear that their path would diverge with the more moderate opposition groups. Their manifesto calls for “punishment of all traitors, according to the full force of revolutionary laws,” and Right Sector considers anyone attempting to diffuse the rebellious atmosphere or who engages in negotiations with “internal enemies” to be a traitor. “There can be no compromise with criminals,” one leader said.
Little wiggle room
The top leaders of Ukraine's nationalist parties were not present during the recent clashes between Right Sector activists and law enforcement. The only opposition leader present was the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, a moderate opposition leader who was attempting to stop the violence. Some protesters greeted Klitschko with an obscene chant usually used by soccer fans. Others said he was the type of leader that they had long wanted to get rid of.
This outbreak of violence was unexpected both by the government and the mainstream opposition movement, and has forced President Viktor Yanukovich and his opponents to reestablish communication - urgently. Klitschko went, of his own initiative, to visit the President at his residence.
The former boxing champion says that he spoke with Yanukovich for around an hour, and expressed his concern that if action is not taken quickly, the country could start down an irreversible road toward civil war. Although the government has offered to hold talks with the opposition, so far it has not offered negotiations on a presidential level, and the opposition refuses to negotiate unless the talks are directly with Yanukovich.
In spite of the fact that real negotiations between the moderate opposition movement and the government seems to be the only hope for avoiding further violence in Ukraine, neither side seems prepared to make serious concessions. The opposition insists on early presidential and parliamentary elections, which the President categorically refuses. In addition, Yanukovich’s administration has been tightening laws in an effort to force the air out of the protest movement.
This week, Sergei Levochik, a senior Administration official, was dismissed after having advocated against adopting repressive laws, in order to give time for the protest movement to die down on its own.
Given these circumstances, it’s going to be difficult for both the government and the moderate opposition movement to make compromises that allow them both to save face. The apparent political dead end in Ukraine is instead the perfect atmosphere for radicals to escalate the violence.