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Waiting game

Roman Goncharenko / cc, gsw, cmkDecember 3, 2013

Ukraine's opposition is calling on President Viktor Yanukovych to resign, hoping to force a new election. Hundreds of thousands are protesting in Kyiv - but it seems the president is trying to buy some time.

Thousands of demonstrators march in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on December 2, 2013. Ukrainian protesters on December 2 blockaded administrative buildings and camped on Kiev's central square in a bid to oust the government after police brutality and a row over an EU pact plunged the nation into its worst political crisis in a decade. Incensed by a crackdown on an opposition rally calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government, more than 100,000 led politicians including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko poured into the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities on December 1. AFP PHOTO / YURIY DYACHYSHYN (Photo credit should read YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych waited until Monday evening (02.12.2013), nearly two days after the protests in Kyiv escalated, to speak out. In an interview on Ukrainian television, he urged police and demonstrators to behave lawfully, saying, "It is very important that these activities are conducted peacefully."

The previous day, some half a million people took to the streets in Kyiv to demonstrate against Yanukovych and express their outrage at instances of police brutality in the early hours of Saturday (30.11.2013). Special forces from the Interior Ministry cracked down on several hundred young demonstrators at Kyiv's central Independence Square.

A key point of contention for demonstrators has been Yanukovych's decision to back out of signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union last week. Violence erupted when rioters attempted to storm the presidential administration building.

Yanukovych: an experienced tactician

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych speaks during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday,March, 1, 2013. Yanukovych has hinted that he may free from prison an opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko. Yanukovych spoke days after European Union gave Kiev until May to demonstrate its commitment to democracy and solved the cases of Tymoshenko and former Ukrainian Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Yanukovych is not planning to step down any time soonImage: picture alliance / AP Photo

Observers are interpreting Yanukovych's two-day silence as a sign of indecision. "It seems to me that he hasn't yet decided what line to take," said Serhij Rachmanin, senior political editor at Kyiv's prestigious newspaper "Dzerkalo Tyzhnia," in an interview with DW. "We have a stand-off. Both sides - government and demonstrators - went too far."

However, Gerhard Simon, a Ukraine expert at the University of Cologne, believes Yanukovych's behavior is purely tactical. He is a man "who knows how to bide his time," Simon told DW. "This silence is not unwise. Whatever he does, it's going to be used against him."

The 63-year-old Yanukovych has been president of the Ukraine for nearly four years. Last weekend's protests against him were by far the largest since he took office in 2010.

On Sunday his power base appeared to be crumbling, as several prominent representatives of the ruling Party of Regions announced their resignation from the parliamentary group. There were also reports Serhiy Lyovochkin, chief of staff to Yanukovych, had stepped down, but these have not yet been officially confirmed.

However, the journalist Rachmanin said these developments are somewhat overrated. "I wouldn't say that the governing majority is about to fall apart."

Yanukovych's popularity in his strongholds in eastern and southern Ukraine is also unlikely to change after the recent events, added Rachmanin. Recent polls are not yet available.

Will the protests survive the winter?

Rachmanin believes that, despite the protests, Yanukovych has a relatively good chance to stay in power. The next presidential election isn't until 2015 and according to Rachmanin, the opposition has "no clear plan" to bring about a change of government.

In addition, the clashes between protesters and the police have been "thought-provoking" for at least part of the population, he said. Against this backdrop, Yanukovych wants to lay low and ride out the crisis.

A man sprays gas as Interior Ministry members stand guard during a rally held by supporters of EU integration in Kiev, December 1, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians shouting "Down with the Gang!" rallied on Sunday against President Viktor Yanukovich's U-turn on Europe and some used a building excavator to try to break through police lines at his headquarters. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
Violent clashes could deter some protestersImage: Reuters

Rachmanin believes a further escalation in violence by the police is still quite possible, though he thinks the reaction by the West could deter Yanukovych. "I think he wants to leave the door open to Europe," he said – if only to have something to oppose the pressure coming from Russia.

Ukraine expert Simon doesn't think Yanukovych will step down. But if the opposition is able to paralyze the country with a general strike, as it has warned it plans to do, then "many things are possible which we aren't yet able to foresee," he said.

Yanukovych's next move, according to Simon, is likely to signal a willingness to make concessions with the protesters and then play them like pawns, in the hope that winter will come and the protests "are lost in the snow."

Following in Kuchma's footsteps

Should Yanukovych's plan to wait out the protests be successful, he won't be the first Ukrainian president to employ the maneuver. In the winter of 2001, then President Leonid Kuchma was facing accusations of involvement in the killing of a critical journalist.

Thousands took to the streets and protested, calling for Kuchma to step down. There were brutal clashes between demonstrators and police in Kyiv. People were shocked and the protest movement lost its support. Kuchma remained president, finishing his term in early 2005.