Kiev is burning. Or at least some central parts of the city are, with protesters amassed in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovich and his pro-Russia tilt, which has resulted in a raft of provocative laws that has tilted the country away from the European Union. The two-month-old protests hit an unwelcome new milestone overnight, when riot police apparently shot dead at least two demonstrators.
The demonstrations started in November, after Yanukovich suddenly decided to drop economic treaty negotiations with the EU. Opponents charged Russia with meddling and holding Ukraine hostage by threatening to cut off natural gas deliveries; after Yanukovich dropped the EU pact, Russia offered Ukraine a generous $15 billion bailout package to shore up its poor finances.
At this stage, Ukraine's political differences could have been worked out peaceably through negotiations and diplomacy.
The period for a political solution lasted until last week. At that point, protests were flagging in the sub-freezing weather and opposition leaders had turned their energies toward preparing for next year's election. Then, by hand votes, Yanukovich loyalists in parliament approved a series of anti-protest laws, including bans on wearing helmets and masks at gatherings; pitching tents or using sound equipment without police approval; blocking state buildings; and traveling in convoys of five or more cars.
On Sunday, the largely peaceful protests developed a violent edge, when a group of protesters — some of them reportedly from a far-right group, Right Sector — started battling security police with clubs, cobblestones, and Molotov cocktails. At the same time, anger about the anti-protest laws swelled the ranks of the peaceful demonstrators, breathing new life into the protest. Police blocked a protest march past the parliament building, stoking that anger.
On Tuesday, the government sent out a creepy, threatening text message to people with cellphones in the vicinity of the protests: "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance." On Wednesday, the laws took effect, a day after an Interior Ministry directive allowed riot police to use firearms with live ammunition.
Now there's a fluid battle between riot police, using stun grenades and plastic bullets, and the protesters defending their blockaded area from City Hall to Independence (Maidan) Square. Here's some video, from pro-opposition Radio Svoboda, of riot police beating protesters:
"Few days are left, or maybe even hours, when solving the political process is possible through negotiations," Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the opposition Fatherland Party warned on Tuesday. "This should be done while people are still willing to listen to politicians and accept the path to political resolution of the crisis."
By Wednesday, with people dead, that moment might have passed.
Everybody is blaming everyone else for the escalating violence. The three main opposition parties blamed Yanukovich and his interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, saying, "The bloody murderer Zakharchenko bears personal responsibility for this act of terror of dictatorship against citizens." Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov blamed "terrorists from the 'Maidan,'" who "seized dozens of people and beat them" and will now be considered "criminals who must answer for their action."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Europe and the U.S. for instigating the pro-EU protests and even joining in, saying, "It seems someone is interested in this chaos." The U.S. Embassy in Kiev, for its part, said it is suspending the visas of unidentified people responsible for inciting violence between police and protestors.
The biggest detriment to a peaceful resolution is that the anti-protest laws and deaths have stirred up the opposition. If the government sent hooligans out to stir up violence to split apart the opposition, as opponents charge, it appears to have stirred up the fury of moderates as well as more radical elements. "The simple fact that there have been losses of life will undoubtedly drive the anti-government movement to new, and possibly explosive, levels of outrage," says David Stern at BBC News.
More activists are flooding into Kiev from the west, and crowds are massing at the site of the clashes. As the anger and the number of people mounts, the likelihood of a massive outbreak of violence, from either side, increases. The tension is also rising in Kiev's Independence Square. Activists are forming self-defense groups and reinforcing the barricades. After PM Azarov announced that authorities could use force to restore order, protesters are preparing themselves for any possible development. [BBC News]
In other words, Kiev is at risk of devolving into armed revolution.
The other possibility, of course, is that the spiraling violence might lead to a political solution. Yanukovich's opponents in parliament have accused him of stonewalling them and refusing to meet for talks to end the impasse. On Wednesday, the president finally sat down with his rivals.
A political solution would be the best outcome. But given the bad blood, getting worse by the day, it doesn't seem the most likely one.