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EU dithers over Kyiv

The protests were initially caused when the Ukrainian president suddenly set his sights on closer ties with Russia instead of Europe. So far, the EU has kept on the sidelines of the conflict. But that could change soon.

EU-Commissioner Stefan Füle (r.) with President Yanukovych in Kyiv (Photo: REUTERS/Andrei Mosienko/Presidential Press Service)

EU-Commissioner Stefan Füle (r.) with President Yanukovych in Kyiv

The European Union flag still flutters in the wind on the barricades in the center of Kyiv. Some people wear it on their shoulders, others drape it over their cars. For many of the protesters, Europe is the central issue that has been driving them onto the streets for more than two months. The protests in the country started when Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine wouldn't be signing and association agreement with the EU and would instead be looking towards Russia.

The European Union was clearly surprised by this turn of events. Brussels was disappointed but announced that the door to the EU was still open for Ukraine. The EU has shown outrage at the violence the Ukrainian police has shown towards the protesters. But there hasn't been much more than outrage. So far, the Ukrainian opposition's demands for sanctions against the Ukrainian government have fallen on deaf ears in Brussels.

EU-Commissioner Füle's dilemma

But the crisis has been coming to a head for around a week in Ukraine. The parliament recently passed a legislative package that significantly restricts the right to demonstration. Radical protesters have been carrying out street battles with the police, people have been wounded and there have even been fatalities.

The EU Commissioner for Enlargement ,Stefan Füle, came to Kyiv against this violent backdrop on Friday (24.01.2014). He met with the Ukrainian president, with leaders of the opposition and with representatives of civil society. But it is unclear what the results of these meetings have been.

Protesters in Kyiv (Photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Protesters in Kyiv often carry EU flags

Füle is the first high-ranking European politician who has visited Ukraine since the violent protests erupted. His task was supposed to be to pacify the tense situation. But Füle is facing a dilemma. He clearly wants to bring the president and the opposition back to the negotiation table. In order to achieve that, he cannot make threats - which is exactly what opposition leaders are asking him to do.

"Europe has major leverage over Yanukovych and the people around him who keep their money in the European Union," opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told Deutsche Welle in an interview. Ukrainian opposition members want the EU to block the accounts of top Ukrainian politicians. The demonstrators on the streets of Kyiv agree. Asked, how the EU could help Ukraine, most of them utter a one word answer: sanctions.

Not an official mediator

The EU has been sharply criticized in its stance regarding the crisis in Ukraine. In online forums, the statements of European politicians who declare that there will be no sanctions for the time being have been met with malice and derision. Many users have accused Brussels of being deferential to Russia and leaving Ukraine to slip into its sphere of influence. One comment reads: "We have been left to our own devices."

Stefan Füle with Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Photo: REUTERS/Anatolii Stepanov/Pool )

Füle met Ukrainian opposition leaders such as Arseniy Yatsenyuk

In addition, Füle's mission has been further complicated by the fact that he is not an official mediator, a position which would have required him to have been invited by the Ukrainian government. The opposition, on the other hand, would like to see the EU in a mediating role, as Arseniy Yatsenyuk, another opposition politician, emphasized. "It will be difficult to find a way out of the social crisis without Western mediation," Yatsenyuk said after meeting Füle in Kyiv. "We think it is necessary for our Western partners to be part of this process."

First Füle, then Ashton

But the president has hesitated to invite the EU to Kyiv as a mediator. That is because it was the European Union which contributed to the resolution of the crisis in 2004, during the "Orange Revolution." A presidential election, which was rigged in Yanukovych's favor was what caused the protests at the time. The election was repeated and he lost.

Ever since, Yanukovych has obviously been less than trusting of Western mediators. But the escalation of the crisis in Kyiv and in the entire country will most likely force him to make concessions, observers say. But Yanukovych will probably only permit such solutions from outside, if Russia is also part of the negotiations. In any case, Europe is already trying to continue its de facto mediating role. This coming week, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will be making a trip to Kyiv.

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