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Sharp words for Kyiv

Jeanette Seiffert / cdJanuary 24, 2014

Ukraine remains on edge - and with it, Germany and the EU. Both are sending strong signals to Kyiv as well as Moscow that the fighting should cease immediately. But beyond words, what can actually be done?

A Ukrainian protestor walks past a makeshift barricade in a city setting.
Image: Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

Worried, but largely helpless, is how Germany and other European governments have felt as they have watched developments in Kyiv. The weeks-long, largely peaceful protests in Ukraine's capital have turned into outright street battles. They involve tear gas and water cannons, shots with live ammunition, three deaths and a bygone ultimatum. The opposition has said it will take the offensive unless Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych steps down. He passed the issue to Ukraine's Parliament, which will vote next week in an extraordinary session to determine the goverment's fate. Still the protests continue.

"Quite powerless" is how the president of European Parliament, Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), confessed to feeling when interviewed by the German public radio station Deutschlandfunk.

"Those are awful pictures reaching us from Ukraine," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD during a pause in the Syrian conference in Montreaux. "I understand the frustrated opposition, which for days and weeks has sensed that nothing's moving." The German position, he added, remains the same. "Violence is not a solution, and we say that to both sides."

Merkel demands real dialogue

Now, the German government's tone toward Ukraine is sharpening. In a telephone conversation on Thursday (23.01.2014) with Yanukovych, German Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the violence and urged him to rescind controversial laws which limit press freedoms and the right to assembly. Merkel appealed to Yanukovych to lead real dialogue with the opposition and to achieve tangible results.

So too have Merkel's colleagues in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) demanded that Kyiv revoke its undemocratic laws. One of those CDU colleagues transcends German politics: Elmar Brok, who chairs the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs. He said he could well understand that, among the demonstrators at "Independence Square" in Ukraine's capital, anger was rampant.

Elmar Brok, a German politician, leans down to speak with a Ukrainian politician
Elmar Brok (left) meets with opposition politician Arseniy YatsenyukImage: DW/M. Bushuev

Sanctions against Kyiv?

Unlike Merkel, Brok supports a proposal made by EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso that would place sanctions on Ukraine. "I think Yanukovych and his people have to know that violence against peaceful demonstrators won't be accepted by us," he said. It's conceivable, for example, to freeze the bank accounts of government members and Ukrainian oligarchs and to enact a travel ban.

EU President Martin Schulz is also keeping sanctions on the table. At the same time, he warns of shutting the door entirely. "If we as the EU were to say, 'We won't negotiate on your coming back to the bargaining table, or on an Association Agreement' - then we'd be stabbing the people in Maidan Square in the back."

Marieluise Beck, the German Green Party speaker on Eastern European policy, urges negotiations with Ukraine and has proposed an EU mediation mission. "The mission would first have to attempt to bring things under control. It cannot be that the fight is waged on the streets," she told German public radio station Südwestrundfunk.

Black smoke billows from an orange fire atop a tire heap, forming the foreground for protestors behind a shield
The Euromaidan protests began peacefully in late November 2013Image: Reuters

Cold words for Putin

European efforts to influence events in Ukraine have met with strong resistance from Moscow. The Kremlin deemed "unacceptable" the EU's lectures on Ukrainian police activities. Russia argues that those authorities know what they should do.

"I find that Russian plea outrageous," says Green politician Beck. Vladimir Putin contributed significantly to escalation, she says, by threatening Ukraine with huge economic consequences if it were to have signed an Association Agreement with the EU. "The Kremlin very much has its finger in the pot," she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in an ornately decorated palatial room.
Viktor Janukovych (right) met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 17 December, 2013Image: Reuters

EU Parliamentarian Brok feels the same. At the very least, he says, Moscow encouraged Ukraine's leadership to crack down hard. "I even feel certain that, in composing these anti-democratic laws, deliberate help was sent. I believe Putin shares a huge amount of responsibility, also because of his political goals of re-establishing old Russia in Ukraine, too."

The CDU's Russian relations coordinator, Andreas Schockenhoff, also views Putin as shouldering some of the blame. "For this reason, we also have to see that Moscow doesn't accuse the EU of influencing Ukraine," he told DW. "Moscow must see this offer of cooperation as an offer not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia - not as a zero-sum game."

In spite of Ukraine's clear Russian course, the EU has switched gears to mediate in the process. Its Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Füle, travels to Kyiv Friday for talks with parties involved in the conflict. Catherin Ashton, the EU's head of foreign affairs - and who will also travel to Ukraine in the coming days - said Thursday that the doors to dialogue and a political solution must remain open.