As with any confrontation involving petrol bombs and live ammunition, reports of yesterday’s violence in Ukraine are already depicting the country as a warzone. With 25 people reported killed as troops attempted to clear the main protest camp in Kiev’s Independence Square last night, that may be a fair description.
What is arguably more worrying, though, is the possibility that yesterday’s events – the bloodiest so far in the two-month-long protests – may merely be the calm before the storm.
“It may seems strange to put it in these terms, but this was violence-lite,” says Andrew Wilson, a Ukraine expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who spoke to me this morning from downtown Kiev.
“Yes, people were killed. But if the government is really serious about clearing the square, it will have to be considerably more aggressive and to have more troops and more armoured support. The protesters here are very nervous about what may happen at dusk tonight.”
Mr Wilson is not being unnecessarily blood-curdling. A death toll of 25 might sound like a lot. But given the size of the crowds, it’s about standard for this kind of gloves-off scrap between an autocratic state and its people – roughly the equivalent to the average rough night in Egypt’s Tahrir Square these days. When the Egyptian security forces really means business, as they did when ousting President Mohammed Morsi last year, they shot 800 of his supporters in a single day.
Hopefully, that level of violence will not come Ukraine’s way. But the remaining protesters aren’t the only ones feeling nervous. With a serious amount of blood now staining Kiev’s frosty streets, the stage now seems to be set for the confrontation to be resolved by force rather than dialogue. That carries with it the possibility that Ukraine may effectively break up as a nation, its pro-European and pro-Moscow factions irreconcilably divorced.
All the signals for break-up are there. President Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Moscow leader, has reverted to hardline mode, accusing the crowds of trying to oust him in a coup. Moscow, as ever, has backed his view, overlooking the fact that in parts of western Ukraine, where pro-European feeling runs much stronger, Mr Yanukovych’s writ already no longer runs. The EU, like an ineffective and slightly biased marriage guidance counsellor, has urged restraint on both sides, while still calling a meeting tomorrow to decide on sanctions for “those responsible for repression and human rights violations”.
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It is, of course, easy to blame Uncle Vladimir Putin in Russia for stirring all this up. It was he, after all, who pressured Mr Yanukovych into breaking off his trade deal with EU last November. But it is also an indictment on Ukraine’s own politicians, be they pro or anti-Moscow, who have done a lousy job of running their country since it gained independence in 1991.
To get an idea of how little traction they have with the disaffected general public, bear in mind that one of the main voices for the demonstrators is not an establishment politician at all, but Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing legend, who formed his own political party back in 2009. As of last night, the 6ft 7ins giant was among the protesters still refusing to leave downtown Kiev, telling the crowd “We will not go anywhere,” as tents and tyres burned around him.
I interviewed Klitschko in Ukraine back in 2010, curious to know why a sportsman who was already a multi-millionaire wanted to enter the far dirtier arena of Ukrainian politics. Was it perhaps was because he wanted to take part in the regular brawls in the parliament, in which Ukraine is a world-class contender on YouTube’s “Parliamentary punch-ups” section?
Klitschko replied with a rather sad story. In 1991, he said, he’d gone for a bout in neighbouring Poland, which back then was much poorer than Ukraine. Over the next two decades, though, he’d seen it become one of the most prosperous and stable of the former Eastern Bloc states, while Ukraine had stayed corrupt, poor and authoritarian.
“Most Ukrainians think we are going in the wrong direction, with nothing really changing,” he told me. “We have had 20 years already to become a democratic country already – we cannot wait another 20.”
One of the final straws for Mr Klitschko was the failure of the politicians of the pro-Western Orange Revolution, when a previous round of mass protests in Kiev ousted Mr Yanukovych in 2004. In came the fragrant, pigtailed Julia Tymoshenko and her partner-in-people-power, Viktor Yushchenko, whose was face was hideously pockmarked from a secret service poisoning attempt.
Both idolised by the West – they adorned the covers of Elle and Time magazines respectively – the pair initially seemed to have everything going for them. All they had to do, surely, was point to Vladimir Putin’s corrupt, undemocratic Russia as a vision of how Ukraine might otherwise end up. Instead, they squabbling endlessly, allowing Mr Yanukovych to win again fair and square in 2010, and to then throw Ms Tymoshenko in jail on trumped-up corruption charges.
Hence Mr Klitschko’s decision to go it alone. His stated aim is to forge a new kind of Ukrainian politics where parties break away from the old totalitarian tradition of forming personality cults rather than proper policies. The fact that he himself is already a superstar in his own right, however, suggests he has his work cut out.
It is this kind of rotten, dysfunctional polity that lies at the heart of Ukraine’s current ills, as much as the divide between the Russian-speaking factions in the east and the Ukrainian-speaking nationalists in the West.
Hence the country has been unable to facilitate proper dialogue between its factions, with differences that could have been settled politically now being resolved in the streets. And with divides not just over language but religion too – the Roman Catholics of western Ukraine vs the Russian Orthodox followers of elsewhere – it offers no shortage of pieces for some wider East-West chess game.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering that in the years immediately following the break-up of the Soviet empire, other former satellite states erupted into open warfare between their pro-Moscow Russian-speaking factions and those who wanted to throw off the Kremlin’s influence for good.
Most Europeans won’t recall it now, but Transnestria, a tiny, Russian speaking enclave in Moldova, fought a war that cost nearly 1,000 lives in its bid to establish independence in 1992. We must hope that Ukraine, which is roughly 10 times the size of Moldova, does not go down a similar path.
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