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Eastern Europe

Police violence in Ukraine strengthens opposition

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovitch has continued to lose support following police violence against demonstrators in Kyiv. The EU has appealed to Ukraine to respect citizens' freedom of speech and assembly.

Opponents of the Ukrainian government are putting increasing pressure on President Viktor Yanukovitch, forming blockades aimed at preventing government officials from entering their offices at city hall and other locations on Monday (02.12.2013). They also built tents in central Kyiv for around 5,000 of those who took part in massive protests on Sunday. The country reports that more than 150 people were injured in clashes between the demonstrators and police officers.

Andreas Umland - a political scientist currently teaching at the University of Kyiv - suggested that the police action was in fact a test by the government to see how far it could go. If this was indeed the case, the policy has seriously backfired. He says emotions grew especially raw among protesters following media reports claiming a demonstrator had died of his injuries on Saturday night.

Those who know the country well say it is unusual for the police to employ such violent measures against protestors. Opposition parliamentarian Andrei Shevchenko told the German news agency dpa that Ukraine had never experienced anything like it. But President Yanukovych's violent response has only fanned the flames of popular fury.

Opposition closes ranks

The initial protests were directed against Yanukovych's European policy. At the recent European Union summit on partnership with its eastern neighbors, Ukraine backed away - at least for the time being - from an association agreement being negotiated with the EU. Under pressure from Russia, shortly before the meeting Yanukovych announced that he would not be signing the long-awaited free trade agreement.

Russia is Ukraine's biggest trading partner and main source of gas. It is pushing for Ukraine to become a member of a customs union including Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, and opposes Ukraine opening its borders to EU products.

Georgia and Moldova did, however, pen agreements which bring the two countries closer to the European Union.

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych with German Chancellor Angela Merkel smiling for the camera at the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania (Photo: Rainer Jensen /dpa)

Viktor Yanokovych backed away from signing the EU Association Agreement at the summit

Yanukovych's decision to back out of the agreement may cost him his office. Andreas Umland believes that "if it carries on like this, there will be a change of government." This might then put the opposition in the position of forming a transitional government. The three opposition parties - Batkivshina, Udar and Svoboda - have joined forces to form an "Action Committee of National Resistance."

In an interview with DW, Kyryl Savin, the director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Kyiv, explained their political power balance. Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshina party effectively leads the opposition, he said, although the Udar party is ahead in polls. Udar's leader, the boxer Vitaly Klitschko, has not been around enough, said Savin, pointing to the leader's absence even during the protests.

Umland believes that Klitschko could, nonetheless, become president. He certainly sees the coalition between the parties as having strengthened the opposition, as "they have in any case been working together since 2012."

Yanukovych stoking confusion

President Yanukovych even seems to be losing support within his own party. Although he has denied having anything to do with the police violence against the demonstrators, many allied parliamentarians appear not to believe him and have announced their departure from the party. The head of the presidential office is believed to be among them.

The situation is becoming increasingly chaotic. "Reports are coming in thick and fast at the moment, and we don't have precise information," Umland told DW, "but the government seems to be in a state of panic."

It has been confirmed that the head of the Kyiv police has taken responsibility for the violence and stepped down. However, Umland said Yanukovych used him as a scapegoat. "The police force in Ukraine is not autonomous, as it is in South America, for example," he said. Umland believes that the president initiated the violent police action.

EU criticism

The EU has demanded an explanation. Foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton released a statement saying "The European Union strongly condemns the excessive use of force by the police in Kiev to disperse peaceful protesters, who over the last days in a strong and unprecedented manner have expressed their support for Ukraine's political association and economic integration with the EU."

A group of protesters, some wearing gas masks, march through Kyiv on December 1, 2013 (Photo: EPA/FILIP SINGER)

Demonstrations in Kiev continued over the weekend in spite of police violence

Umland is urging the EU to step in. "It has to make clear to Russia that the pressure it is exerting on Ukraine is not acceptable," he said, adding that calm would only return to the streets of Kyiv once the agreement with the EU has been signed.

This is important, he says, primarily because Ukraine is the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The conference of OSCE ministers is due to take place in Kyiv on December 5 and 6. The EU is therefore calling on Ukraine to comply with international obligations, and respect its citizens' freedoms of speech and assembly.

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