Ukraine rallies turn violent after president signs anti-protest laws | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.01.2014
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Ukraine rallies turn violent after president signs anti-protest laws

Views are divided on whether the opposition in Ukraine will see its demand for President Yanukovych's resignation met. After riots in Kyiv, experts say the president's position is weakened, but so is the opposition's.

Burning police busses, tear gas and explosions. After weeks of peaceful demonstrations against the government and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, riots broke out in Kyiv on Sunday and Monday (19-20.01.2014) as opposition members clashed with police.

"There is a new dynamic" to the demonstrations, Andreas Umland, a political expert at Kyiv's Mohyla Academy, told DW. The protest is "no longer aimed merely at changing the government," but at "a wider regime change" that includes the complete replacement of leadership across the country. More violence is also likely, he added.

Even before the latest violence, the situation in Ukraine was tense. Last week, a court forbade demonstrations in downtown Kyiv until the beginning of March. Thousands of people have protested in Kyiv against Yanukovych's pro-Russian stance since the end of November. Demonstrations were sparked by a decision not to sign an association pact with the European Union and instead to strengthen ties with Russia.

Protests against controversial laws

The Ukrainian parliament passed a series of laws on Thursday that limited people's right to protest. The punishments for protesting include long prison sentences for "extremism." Comments in online social networks said the parliament had gone too far, and despite the ban thousands of people met at Maidan, or Independence Square, the stage of Ukrainian protests for months. Opposition members said as many as 500,000 people assembled while international news agencies put the number at between 100,000 and 200,000 people.

Protests in Kyiv 19.01.2014

Protests descended into riots, afer parliament passed demonstration restrictions

The escalation came - witnesses said that hundreds of activists tried to push their way into a cordoned off section of city home to government buildings. Confrontations with special units of Ukrainian riot police followed, and there were reportedly dozens of injuries on both sides. Opposition members later said provocateurs attacked police.

Discord among the opposition

Some critics said opposition leaders carry some of the blame for the escalation of violence as it has shown no plan for the movement's future and has been unable to unite protests under a single banner. The accusation is aimed at opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leading member of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok, a leader in the right-wing Svoboda party. Yatsenyuk on Sunday rejected calls that the opposition groups unite, saying that the Ukrainian people were the leaders of the Maidan protests.

"Certainly, the opposition has failed," said Gerhard Simon, an Eastern Europe expert at Cologne University. "It cannot offer anything substantial to the people who have been showing up at Maidan week after week." He added that the calls for the government to resign were "not achievable."

The dividing lines in the opposition have been visible in recent days. Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko called on Ukrainians to take part in protesting against "the ruling group of bandits" in a post on Facebook, adding that "there was nothing more to lose." The independent politician is an influential member of the opposition movement. Opposition groups supported by sitting parliamentarians have emphasized that protests should be peaceful. Opposition leaders on Sunday announced a new action plan that calls for the foundation of an alternative parliament and new elections.

Opposition's ultimatum running out

The situation in Kyiv is likely to remain tense in the coming days. The opposition has called for a nationwide strike. Such appeals have been made in recent weeks but were not implemented.

Ukraine Demonstration Kyiv Vitali Klitschko

Opposition figure Vitaly Klitschko tried to intervene and was sprayed with fire extinguisher

Mass protests against the government have largely been limited to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Protests in other cities in the nation of 45 million have seen only hundreds of demonstrators. In the densely populated east and south of the country, a majority of the population has expressed its support for Yanukovych and his policies, while thousands of their fellow citizens continue protesting in the west.

Opinions are split on whether the president will remain securely in office. "Obviously not," said Umland, adding that the parliament's recently passed laws were "the twitches of a dying organism." Simon, on the other hand, said he saw Yanukovych's position as weakened, but still stronger than that of the opposition.

An ultimatum calling for the government's resignation was set by the opposition in early January and will expire on Wednesday. Should the opposition's demands not be met, Yatsenyuk has threatened demonstrations at the president's office. But as access to that part of the city has been blocked off, fresh clashes with the police would be unavoidable.

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