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Ukraine on the Brink of Civil War

Since November Ukraine has been in a state of civil unrest and political crisis; in recent days however the debacle has quickly escalated, with expressions like “civil war” and “state of emergency” ringing around the capital city of Kiev. Ukraine’s first post-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, has warned the country is on the “brink of civil war”, urging parliament to “act with greatest responsibility”. 

Civil unrest started when, on 21 November, President Viktor Yanukovych decided to move towards a deal with Russia, reversing the decisions to sign a free trade deal and political integration pacts negotiated with the European Union.

(Anti-government protesters try to keep warm at a barricade in Kiev. President Viktor Yanukovych has refused to step down despite ongoing protests)

In a bid to secure their relationship with Ukraine, Russia agreed to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price of gas it sells to the country on the basis that Ukraine does not deal with Brussels. It was this decision to accept Russian money- and to reject partnership agreement with the European Union- that prompted massive pro-European street demonstrations in Kiev. Since then radical groups have joined the cause which has resulted in violent clashes, several citizen’s deaths, government buildings across the country being occupied and parts of central Kiev being transformed into a battle zone.

On 28 January Vladimir Putin dismissed the EU’s decision to send an envoy to Kiev in a bid to try to mediate the 10-week stand off between President Viktor Yanukovych and anti-government protestors on the streets, saying “the more intermediaries there are, the more problems there are. I’m sure the Ukrainian people will sort this out and Russia is not going to interfere.” However, opposition to the president has said that the Kremlin is exerting huge pressure on Yanukovych behind the scenes, urging him to deal more harshly with anti-government protestors who are calling for the president’s resignation. 

Both US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have underlined their support for the demonstrators, with Mrs Merkel emphasising that the demonstrators are “fighting for the same values that also guide us, the European Union, and that is why they need to be listened to”.

Amidst increasing tensions within the country President Yanukovych bowed to foreign pressure from the USA and Europe to make his biggest concession to the opposition yet with the sacking of his hard-line prime minister, Azarov, and his cabinet. He has also promised to repeal recently implemented draconian laws criminalising protest and freedom of speech which had seen many protestors imprisoned and had been dubbed as “dictatorial”. Members of parliament have now, almost unanimously, voted to repeal nine out of the 11 recently passed laws. 

(Protesters warm themselves by a fire in Kiev: temperatures in the Ukrainian capital have fallen to -20C at night.) 

In recent days Yanukovych has insisted that he and his government have “fulfilled all the obligations” to solve the crisis in the country. However he added to the statement, which was issued on the Ukrainian presidential website that the political opposition continues to “whip up the situation calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders.” This statement follows the announcement that Yanukovych is on sick leave due to respiratory illness and a high fever.

In a bid to try to ease the mounting internal social-unrest and discontent President Yanukovych’s parliament is considering an amnesty for scores of protestors who have been detained since demonstrations began in November. However this amnesty would be conditional on protestors leaving official buildings- a proposal rejected by the opposition, as they believe that protestors have been taken hostage and are being used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

(Anti-government protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square) 

Disappearances amongst anti-government activists are becoming frequent occurrences. Amnesty International had launched a campaign calling on the government to investigate the disappearance of Dimitrii Balatov, a prominent anti-government protestor who went missing in Kiev on 22 January. After eight days he was found on the outskirts of Kiev having been left to die in the cold by his kidnappers. “They crucified me, so there are holes in my hands now,” Balatov said. “Other than that- they cut off my ear, cut up my face. My whole body is a mess. You can see everything. I am alive. Thank God for this.” The activist reportedly said he did not know who had abducted him but that his abductors had spoken with Russian accents.

Amnesty International has also raised awareness concerning the fact that other protestors have been found dead or missing: Yury Verbytsky was found dead in a forest outside of Kiev; reportedly his ribs were broken and there were traces of duct tape round his head. Verbytsky and a well-known journalist and activist, Igor Lutsenko, had been abducted by unidentified men on 21 January when they sought medical treatment in a local hospital.

It would seem that situation in Ukraine will need far more than an EU envoy to secure the current political instability. Whilst President Yanukovych is on sick-leave the nation waits to see what will unfold in the coming days and weeks. “It is a revolution,” former-President Kravchuk says as protests spread across Ukraine. It still remains unclear whether this revolution will turn into a full-scale civil war but for now the situation remains a tense one with both sides unwilling to compromise. 

Photo credits: Getty Images; The Guardian 

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