Ashton flies to Kyiv as tensions heighten

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BREAKING: A crackdown on opposition and media is reported. According to Ukrainian website Levyi Bereg the special forces have stormed into the office of Tymoshenko’s party Batkivshyna, and also  of TV channel INTV, as well of the websites and the newspaper “Vechernih vestey”. EU’s Foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is set to fly to Kyiv tomorrow (10 December). 

Ashton is expected in Kyiv for a two-day visit and is due to meet both senior government officials, as well as the leaders of the opposition and civil society. But political observers said that tension in Kyiv had reached boiling point and several worst-case scenarios were described as realistic. 

Ukrainian riot police took up position on Monday near Kyiv's city hall, which is occupied by pro-Europe protesters demonstrating against a government U-turn in trade policy towards Russia (see background).

Special forces are blocking access to the central Maidan square, including the metro stations. A government source quoted by the Kyiv Post said the riot police had received authorisation to use force against protestors.

Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkyvschina party of Yulia Tymoshenko, said protestors should be ready for a crackdown.

“We will have to defend our Maidan,” Yatsenyuk said today, cited by the Ukrainian Pravda website.

Vitali Klitschko, leader of the opposition UDAR party, said that the government was trying to apply psychological pressure on the protestors, adding that the best response would be for more people to go to Maidan.

Ashton’s visit was arranged following a phone call between Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Ukrainian President Kiktor Yanukovich held on Sunday, according to a communiqué.

Apparently responding to what Yanukovich had told him on the phone, Barroso insisted that it was “not true” the protests were limited to the Western part of Ukraine.

Barroso paid tribute to the protestors, saying: “And if sometimes in Europe some of us have doubts about how important these values are, just look at Ukraine. Those young people in the streets of Ukraine, with freezing temperatures, are writing the new narrative for Europe.”

Schizophrenic position?

European politicians appear to be divided between praising the protestors for their courageous pro-EU attitude and suggesting that a political agreement to defuse tensions should be urgently found.

Radek Sikorski, the firebrand Atlanticist Polish foreign minister, yesterday enigmatically twitted: “Vast EuroMaidan protest suggests that President Yanukovich, together with the opposition, should lead Ukraine toward reform and Europe."

Today, Sikorski tweeted “Lady Ashton's visit in Kyiv tomorrow can galvanise government-opposition dialogue. Road Map towards AA with EU, reforms and IMF funds urgently needed.”

Apparently, behind the formula “the EU door still remains open” for Ukraine to sign the Association agreement, the message is that at least a “roadmap” to signing the agreement could be agreed, under the umbrella of a deal between the government and the opposition.

It is debatable whether Brussels genuinely believes in such a possibility, or is just trying to buy time and possibly avoid Yanukovich formalising his country’s accession to the Russian-led Customs Union.

Visa-free offer?

In addition, word is spreading that the US is advising Brussels to promise Ukrainians visa-free travel to the EU’s borderless Schengen space.

Lithuanian MP Vilija Aleknaite-Abramikene, who is vice President of the Parliamentary Assembly of OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is quoted as saying that the US insists that the EU should lift the visa requirement for Ukrainian nationals immediately.

EurActiv asked the US Mission to the EU as well as the Commission to comment on these statements, but had received no answer at the time of publication.

Three scenarios

The government forces have completed preparations for “radical scenarios”, experts from the Gorshenin Institute, a Ukrainian think-tank, warned today.

According to the institute, the three most likely scenarios are the following, in order of likelihood:

  • First, the so-called ‘Yugoslav’ scenario, which would bring about the partition of the country. Ukraine is traditionally divided between a pro-EU, Western part of the country and a pro-Russian South (Crimean) and East (the industrialised regions of Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk). Such a scenario would be accompanied with the introduction of a state of  emergency, the focusing of protest in the western regions of Ukraine with its centre in Lviv (close to the border with Poland), and an attempt to crackdown by force and establish external governance to reconcile the conflicting sides.
  • The second scenario is described as ‘Belarusian’, since it would transform Ukraine into a second totalitarian state on the EU's borders. This scenario implies the crackdown of any forms of protest throughout Ukraine, arrests of political leaders and Euromaidan activists, and isolation of the leadership of the rebellion.
  • And thirdly a ‘Ukrainian’ scenario is also possible. It would be based on the re-formatting of the majority in the parliament and establishment of a coalition government under pressure from the protest and from the country's self-appointed elites.

According to the Gorshenin experts, the government has chosen a wait-and-see tactic and still hopes for the protest's energy to fizzle out. At the same time, preparations for targeting the most active protest organisers are underway, and criminal cases against leaders have been initiated. Internal military forces and special police detachments have been deployed in the centre of Kyiv.

On the other hand, the opposition is caught between the insistence from western politicians that the protests should remain peaceful and the growing radicalisation of the protestor’s sentiments.

  • 10-11 Dec.: Ashton on mission to Kyiv;
  • 17 Dec.: Yanukovich to meet with Putin again