After a quiescent period over the holidays, Ukraine-or more specifically, Kiev-erupted into protest today. The provocation for the renewed protests was the hurried passage of a set of laws to to crack down on the opposition. Blockading public buildings, wearing helmets, driving in a line of cars more than five vehicles wide, or engaging in “extremist” activity are now banned. No setting up tents or sound stages without permission. NGOs that receive any funding from abroad must register as “foreign agents.” (Sound familiar?) All this was stitched together in a highly irregular procedure organized by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
Today’s protests–mainly not in Maidan, but near government buildings some blocks away–resulted in clashes between the Berkut (Ukraine’s interior ministry forces) and the protesters. Klitschko tried to cool things down, and blamed the clashes on provocateurs. As day dragged into night, a stalemate developed. The protestors created a barricade of buses and security force vehicles. The protestors were on one side, the police sheltering on the other. The protestors lobbed rocks at the police. (If you look at the live stream now, 20:05 CST, you’ll see the ground littered with stones.) The police fired back with gas and flash grenades. Whenever the protestors would approach the buses in large numbers, the security forces would unleash a barrage of grenades and drive back the protestors. Things see-sawed back and forth for hours. Eventually the protestors set several vehicles alight with Molotov cocktails. After some feeble attempts by the police to douse the flames with hoses, eventually a water cannon vehicle was deployed to put out the fire. The battle ebbed with the flames. The police withdrew, and the protestors thinned out, with just a few now milling around.
Yanukovych’s move was at the very least inspired by Putin, and plausibly ordered by him. All of the laws passed are quite similar to those that Putin has put in place in Russia.
Although today’s conflict could have escalated, the security forces did not press the issue. They did not mount an assault, but contented themselves with lobbing grenades and crouching under their shields close to the bus barricade.
Yanukovych’s middle choice is not sustainable. It was sufficiently violent to outrage and galvanize the opposition, and will reinvigorate it. But it was not violent enough to crush it. Something will have to give.
Ukraine is a divided country. The eastern part would be quite content if the government cracked now helmet-less heads. The western part would likely respond by going into outright revolt. Forced to rely on his eastern, ethnic Russian base, and pushed by Putin, on balance it would seem that Yanukovych will escalate the crackdown. There seemed to be hesitancy today, but perhaps that reflects surprise at the intensity of the protest. The element of surprise is now gone. The government is now on notice. Putin will demand results. The die has been cast.
For better or for worse, this will be decided in the streets.
I wonder how the Olympics will play into this. The events in Kiev put Putin in something of a dilemma. He doesn’t want events in Kiev, with which he and Russian are unmistakably implicated, to spin out of control while during the Olympics on which he has staked so much. But he doesn’t want the the opposition to grow, and become emboldened by government hesitancy, and live on into the spring when better weather can only increase its numbers.
In other words, Putin and his puppet are in something of a delicate situation. Given this delicacy, and the fact that things can develop spontaneously due to the actions of individuals in the streets-protestors, provocateurs, or militiamen-it is hard to predict what will happen. My guess is that sooner or later it will come to a violent climax.
Aside: Watching the live streams, I wondered what similar coverage would have looked like in St. Petersburg in 1905 or Petrograd in 1917.