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Opinion: Ukraine protests could spread like wildfire

The opposition in Kyiv has good reason to fear state-sponsored terrorism, and the animosity between Ukraine's government and protesters could divide a country that is already politically torn, says DW's Bernd Johann.

Bernd Johann (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)

Bernd Johann is the head of DW's Ukrainian department

Viktor Yanukovych's policies are leading Ukraine into an abyss. Some of the scenes these past days in Kyiv were barbaric. Security forces used extreme force to beat people who were already on the ground. Videos show Ukrainian Special Forces humiliating and torturing people. Injured activists from the protest movement were abducted from hospitals. Groups of thugs hunted down members of the opposition. It is understandable that many Ukrainians speak of state-sanctioned of terror.

There must be political consequences if the situation is to calm down. The authorities and relevant ministers bear the responsibility for violations by the police - above all the Justice and the Interior Ministry. Yanukovych must hold them accountable if they neither clarify the incidents nor stop them. To date, there haven't even been credible apologies for the inacceptable police violence.

The protests in Kyiv have already spread to other cities in Ukraine. Demonstrators have meanwhile stormed the city halls and administrative buildings in numerous cities, in particular in western and central regions of the country. An uprising that began in the capital is slowly turning into a large-scale conflagration.

Sanctions are a possibility

Europe cannot and should not stand by and watch this development. On a political level, the EU has held back far too much over the past weeks in its reaction to events in Ukraine. Now that Yanukovych has backed out of steps to move the Ukraine closer to the EU, the EU member states only have limited means to influence the Ukrainian president.

But the EU still has some leverage. It must press the leadership in Kyiv to enter into a real dialogue with the opposition. The EU must get Yanukovych to do everything he can to ensure there are no more deaths. The EU must tell him in no uncertain terms that there will be sanctions against him and his supporters if he continues to resort to violence against the demonstrators.

The Ukrainian opposition didn't have much to report after hours of negotiating with President Yanukovych: a few political activists arrested during the protests might be set free. The opposition politician Vitali Klitschko could do no more than desperately appeal to the demonstrators to keep being patient. A political solution to the crisis has once again failed because the regime staunchly and arrogantly refuses to come to one.

Protests could expand

The protests will continue and they could even grow in intensity. People's disappointment and anger at Yanukovych and his government keeps growing. It is reasonable to fear there will be a growing spiral of violence. What started as mass protests in Ukraine could turn into an armed revolt with the potential to split and destroy what is already a politically divided country.

"Get that gang out," demonstrators in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities chanted. They are referring to the government and particularly to President Yanukovych, who they see as treating their country as his own private property whose economic resources he can divide among his friends while so many other Ukrainians live in poverty. After two months of fruitless protests it has become clear to most demonstrators that Yanukovych is not interested in real dialogue. He is holding on to power and is playing for time with it comes to dealing with the protest movement, all the while arming his security forces.

Above the law

Yanukovych's call for a special session of parliament where he will announce changes to his cabinet is nothing more than a tactical maneuver. The unpopular Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and another couple of ministers might well be swapped out. But whatever happens, it won't be a major change of course. And as long as the president is not ready to pull his security forces off the streets of Kyiv, the power games will continue.

The dissolution of parliament and new elections, which the protest movement is calling for, is unlikely. It's also hard to imagine the controversial new laws regarding rights of assembly and freedom of expression will be repealed. The parliament only passed them a few days ago in a cloak-and-dagger session. In doing so, the governing majority broke all the rules of democracy and lost any credibility it might have had. Yet the president signed the laws without hesitating. It didn't bother him that the parliament was acting illegally.

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