The protesters who seized central in Kiev two months ago came to turn Ukraine into a standardized European liberal democracy. Today those streets look like a medieval battlefield. Anti-government rioters with helmets, sticks, and shields have fought pitched battles with police for two days nonstop. Some of them built a wooden catapult. At least one man showed up in an actual suit of armor. Riot police flung back rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown in their direction and shot rubber bullets into the crowd.
Police gingerly retreated from an apparent attempt to clear new barricades on Grushevskogo Street just north of the main protest encampment on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, in sub-zero temperatures Wednesday morning, with neither side declaring victory.
Large gangs of titushki, tracksuit-clad pro-government skinhead thugs who attacked passersby with bats and metal chains, fled when activists chased after them. Twelve of them were captured and brought before a people’s court. Police have arrested and beaten several dozen activists and two Radio Free Europe journalists. Over 100 on each party to the violence have been hospitalized.
The stalemate on the ground reflects the political sclerosis gripping the country since President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of a deal with the EU in November under heavy pressure from Russia. Unable to regain control of the capital and, according to every poll, doomed to lose the presidential election scheduled for a year from now, Yanukovych’s position looks all but untenable. But an ineffective opposition and a last-minute $15 billion cash injection from Vladimir Putin have made him feel all but unassailable.
In recent weeks the music-festival euphoria of Euromaidan’s early days has given way to an atmosphere of creeping tension and paranoia, and outbursts of violence. Journalist Tetiana Chornovol accuses Yanukovych of ordering a vicious attack on her late last month as revenge for her work on his luxury residences, a claim he denies. TV coverage of the protest movement, seen as a gauntlet thrown to Yanukovych by the channel’s oligarch owners, has dwindled. The government has made few of the concessions demanded by the movement for earlier violence and made increasing recourse to the legal system to repress it.
A slew of laws passed in clear violation of protocol and with no quorum Thursday were meant to draw a line under Ukraine’s lurch east. Yanukovych might de jure have played hard-to-get on joining Putin’s customs union, which would be electoral suicide, but de facto joined the authoritarian ranks of its members, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Some, like bans on “extremism” and a “foreign agents” act, were copied wholesale from the playbook Putin has used to consolidate power in Moscow. Libel now carries a two-year jail sentence. Internet access can be restricted without a court order. Various penalties for participating in unsanctioned protests stretch up to 15 years. The Automaidan movement, which organizes car rallies outside Yanukovych’s palatial Mezhigorye residence, was all but banned. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, one of the driving forces behind the EU’s failed plan for Ukraine, called them “the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades.” Many activists say the laws amount to the establishment of a “dictatorship.”
If credit for keeping the protests going belongs to Yanukovych, however — attendance at Sunday rallies on the Maidan had flagged in previous weeks until the laws were passed — Ukraine’s political opposition shoulders at least some of the blame for their violent turn as well. Where Orange Revolution leaders Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko drew rapturous crowds to demand a re-vote against Yanukovych in 2004’s Orange Revolution, their successors have done little to draw protesters and less still to encourage them. Endless long-winded speeches full of unattainable, ever-changing demands the leaders of the three largest parties rarely agree on are beginning to grate. At Sunday’s rally, the usual cries of “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Down with the gang!” were joined by plaintive chants: “Do something!”
The crowd and the politicians are beginning to turn on each other. Many activists are furious with opposition leaders for calling Euromaidan’s more radical elements “provocateurs” intent on undermining it, which they see as an attempt to smear a movement they did not start and do not control. Sunday’s violence began after opposition politicians scoffed at an Automaidan activist who voiced a widely-held demand that the movement nominate a single leader. Some in the crowd who had been chanting “Give us a leader!” throughout the afternoon slunked off towards Grushevskogo. Right-wing activists and soccer hooligans engaged with police; other protesters soon joined them.
“I can understand why people behaved this way and I can’t call them provocateurs,” Kateryna Kruk, a 22-year-old activist who has been one of the key voices of the movement on Twitter, wrote in The Guardian. “It is sad and wrong that they have expressed their feelings this way, but when there is no leader in the crowd to control people, they start to act as the street teaches them.”
At present, there is little sign of resolving the impasses at state or street level. Yanukovych has paid lip service to opposition calls for dialogue and sent his security chief, reviled for ordering the Nov. 30 crackdown that kickstarted the movement, to negotiate, an obvious slight. Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk, the leader of Tymoshenko’s party, both poll well ahead of Yanukovych in presidential matchups and seem to be spending as much time jockeying with each other as attempting to lead. The United States is said to have drawn up a list of Ukrainian officials implicated in the violence to be sanctioned, but has yet to deploy it. Any move would be little more than symbolic without similar steps from the EU, which has so far refused to consider sanctions publicly.
For now, Ukrainians will have to stay angry and, unless things change, get angrier still. And until that happens, they will have to find other outlets for their anger — at Yanukovych, at the police, at the opposition, at Western inaction, at other Ukrainians, at everything. Sunday’s burnt-out police buses may only be the beginning.