Riot police encircled central Kiev on Monday of this week as the government prepared a crackdown on anti-government protesters. The move came within hours of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych saying he was prepared to hold talks with opposition leaders.
Caught in a tug of war between European and Russian interests, Ukraine faces a severe economic crisis while thousands of protesters and riot police officers are massed in the streets.
A three-day deadline to leave government buildings expired as Socialist Worker went to press. Hundreds of riot police surrounded the whole of the city centre. But, they remained a short distance away from Independence Square, the epicentre of the protests where thousands of demonstrators have camped out.
Elsewhere in the city, masked men with machine guns raided the headquarters of the Fatherland party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko late on Monday. They took away computers.
Police tore down barricades set up by protesters near government buildings in the capital. They were reported to have surrounded a group of demonstrators outside the presidential administration building.
Ukraine’s prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka warned, “Do not test the patience of government. Do not provoke law enforcement. Lift the blockades of premises and of transport.”
The moves came after hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flocked to Kiev on Sunday. It was the biggest demonstration since the current protests began—and the largest since Ukraine’s 2004 pro-democracy “Orange” revolution.
Symbolically they tore down and smashed the capital’s main statue of Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. A week earlier, baton-wielding police injured scores of people at similar demonstrations.
“We will stand here till the end to defend our rights,” Sergei Kuzan, a lawyer, told Reuters in Kiev’s central Independence Square. “My task is not to let the police through, nor the provocateurs.”
Ukraine’s president turned his back on an integration deal with the European Union (EU) nearly three weeks ago in favour of strengthening ties with Moscow—sparking the protests. Baroness Ashton, the EU’s envoy, was expected to arrive in the country for talks as Socialist Worker went to press.
Various people and groups are manoeuvring to be at the head of the protest movement. There is Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party which while reclaiming ground was mired in
corruption in the past. The boxer Vitali Klitschko leads the anti corruption pro free market UDAR party. Oleg Tyagnibok leads the fascist Svoboda party.
The question is whether the protest movement can build enough momentum to escape the competing interests of the West and Russia, and its own divided ruling class.