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'On the offensive'

Roman Goncharenko, Kyiv / cmkJanuary 23, 2014

Black smoke rose into the sky, barricades were built and explosions and shots rang out in the night. Tensions are running high in Kyiv, and there is an increasing amount of talk about war on the streets.

Ukraine Vitali Klitschko 22.1.2014 Photo: REUTERS/Stringer
Image: Reuters

Speaking as if he wanted to say more but couldn't, Vitali Klitschko addressed the tens of thousands of demonstrators on Kyiv's Independence Square on Wednesday evening (22.01.2014), choosing his words very carefully.

The opposition politician reported on the day's negotiations with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whom he had met earlier in the day along with two other opposition leaders.

New elections - which the opposition has demanded for weeks - would not be happening. Klitschko said the president told him the government's resignation was a possibility, but that was up to parliament to decide.

Without providing details, Klitschko hinted that he would like to be the one to lead the protests, though he told protesters the key issue at the moment was not "political leadership." He said he understood the disappointment of some of the protestors, who for days have called for the three opposition leaders to decide who would take responsibility and lead the movement. As the most popular leader, many have called for Klitschko to take that role.

A new ultimatum

Kyiv protests, barricades Photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Demonstrators have built barricades from whatever is at handImage: Reuters

Wednesday was the bloodiest day of protests since violent clashes between demonstrators and police began on Sunday. According to the opposition, seven activists were killed, hundreds were injured and dozens arrested. The government has called radical opposition protesters extremists and threatened them with further violence.

Opposition representatives, meanwhile, have announced the establishment of an alternative parliament, which is expected to pave the way for an eventual change of power. But, according to Klitschko, the most important task at hand is to defend Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, from a possible assault by the police.

"If the president does not make concessions, we will go on the offensive," he said. The opposition has given the president a new ultimatum of Thursday to present a plan that satisfies protesters.

Hatred for the president

The streets of Kyiv were filled with demonstrators on Wednesday evening, much more so than in previous days, possibly as a reaction to the first protest victims. Armed with wooden sticks or iron rods and for the most part young men, they dominated the city's main street, Khreshchatyk. Many wore construction or ski helmets and goggles. They built barricades out of snow-filled sacks, and pried cobblestones from the icy road to throw at police. They appeared calm, yet the mood was very aggressive. The hatred for the president and his ruling Party of Regions was palpable.

Kyiv protests, fire Photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
A flaming barricade separated protesters and policeImage: Reuters

In the neighboring streets men dismantled metal fences and heaved concrete blocks into position to create new barricades. Young women, students, moved among them, passing out hot tea and buns. "We don't want to live in a dictatorship," said one, before quickly moving on to refill her thermos.

Symbolic location

The bloodiest fighting took place just a few hundred meters away, on Hrushevsky Street. Some saw this as a symbol: Mykhailo Hrushevsky is regarded as one of the pioneers of Ukrainian independence. The historian was the first president of the Ukrainian People's Republic, formed in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian Empire. It existed for only a few months until Bolsheviks occupied a large part of Ukraine.

Kyiv protests Photo: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Protesters have been drumming up support for their causeImage: Reuters

Today, it's young Ukrainians who are fighting on Hrushevsky Street. Many are only in their early 20s and were born in an independent Ukraine. They want their country to join the European Union, instead of entering into an alliance with Russia and other former Soviet republics. The trigger for their protests was Yanukovych's decision not to sign an association agreement with the EU in late 2013.

'Partially uncontrolled circumstances'

On Wednesday evening, police and demonstrators were separated by a wall of fire. The barricades were covered with burning car tires, and the wind pushed the smoke toward the police, complicating the efforts of the government forces. Police threw stun grenades and shot rubber bullets, and protesters responded with Molotov cocktails. Throughout the night, protesters beat the ground or steel drums with sticks, creating a loud boom that echoed through the night, reminiscent of a battle cry.

Talk of war has become more and more common. The violent clashes have not yet turned into a civil conflict, but Ukraine was currently seeing "partially uncontrolled circumstances," said Anatoliy Hrytsenko, Ukraine's former defense minister.

The opposition politician holds Yanukovych responsible for the escalation in violence. "He does not listen to the demonstrators," he told DW, warning of a further escalation in the clashes.

Kyiv protests Photo: REUTERS/Stringer
The opposition is looking for support from the security forcesImage: Reuters

Opposition wants police on its side

Opposition politicians are now trying to pull the security forces to their side. Speaking on Independence Square, both Klitschko and Yuri Lutsenko, the former interior minister, appealed to the police and army to switch sides and stop using their weapons against the demonstrators.

Some observers in Kyiv believe that the moment the first police officers make a move to join the opposition could mark turning point in the protests. But on Wednesday night, that moment was not yet in sight.