The Ukraine Uprising Had Its Bloodiest Day Yet
Feb 19 2014
Kiev was burning again on Tuesday. After a period of calm, yesterday's violence was the deadliest since Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protests began in November.
The number of deaths rose throughout the day, as more and more corpses were found in the streets of Kiev. By Wednesday morning, at least 25 people had lost their lives, including nine police officers. Reports about the number of injured vary but start at more than 200. A Ukrainian doctor on the scene said that the real number could run "into the thousands," and the tolls of those both killed and wounded are only likely to rise. A stream of photos on social media showed people, many of them apparently unconscious, with their faces covered in blood.
Yesterday’s crackdown was a brutal riposte to anyone who thought the situation in Ukraine would be settled any time soon—a position that didn't seem too fanciful as recently as a few days ago. On Sunday, police and protesters started to pull back from their standoff on Kiev’s Hrushevskoho Street, the site of the worst clashes in January. The place was an absolute mess: a sea of soot, tires, and burned-out vehicles, studded with Ukrainian and foreign flags.
Protesters also withdrew from the Kiev city administration building—once known as Revolution HQ—which they had been occupying since early December. This was a condition of an amnesty deal for anti-government demonstrators, with the prosecution stating it would drop charges against them. When officials returned to their place of work on Monday, they found the place more or less trashed.
Meanwhile, President Viktor Yanukovych was continuing to ignore calls from the opposition parties demanding early elections. Nevertheless, the UDAR, Svoboda, and Fatherland parties hoped to succeed in at least pushing forward the amendment of Ukraine’s constitution to reduce the power of the president and increase the power of parliament. The violence on Tuesday broke out as parliament was about to discuss the proposals.
That afternoon, metro stations across the city were closed off, officially due to the threat of a “terrorist attack." This tactic has been used before to make it more difficult for people to reach the protests in central Kiev. Riot police marched toward the city center, armed, ominously, with Kalashnikovs. This video from Instytuska Street shows the police attempting to restore order using a water cannon.
Ukraine’s security forces had given the crowds a deadline of 6 PM to put an end to the violence. As evening came, riot police converged on Independence Square, but it was still unclear whether they would strike, and when. Fires broke out in the square, and at some point before midnight central Kiev experienced a street-light outage. According to local reports, cops began to fire UV paint at the protesters to make them easy targets in the darkness.
Meanwhile, the Trade Unions building, located on one side of Independence Square, also started to burn. This had been the protesters' organizational heart for more than two and a half months, and there are reports that riot police entered the building’s upper floors from the roof before the blaze broke out. The Interior Ministry has since accused radical organization Right Sector of setting fire to the building.
Ukraine’s unruly western regions were not dozing, either. In Lviv, protesters captured the regional administration building, police headquarters, and prosecutor’s office. Local news sources say that legal papers and documents were thrown from the windows of the prosecutor’s office and then burned on a bonfire near the building. In one of the windows, an activist appeared holding a bottle of champagne. Official buildings were also captured by demonstrators in Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of Ukraine.
Around 11 PM, two of the opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, arrived at Yanukovych’s office for talks, where they were kept waiting for more than an hour. “Yanukovych is hiding,” tweeted a member of Klitschko’s team. “They keep being told that the president will meet with them at any moment.” When the talks finally took place, they came to nothing. Klitschko, the leader of the UDAR (or “Punch”) party, told the Ukrainian media later that Yanukovych had simply said that the protesters should go home.
"We are standing on the edge of the most dramatic page of our country’s history,” Yatsenyuk told the Ukrainian press after emerging from the talks, adding that the protesters have the right to stand on the Maidan. (Yatsenyuk is the current leader of the Fatherland party, which held office in Ukraine before its former leader Yulia Tymoshenko was controversially imprisoned.)
A number of European officials condemned the violence, saying Yanukovych was responsible. “Only person who can now stop catastrophe in Ukraine is President Yanukovich,” tweeted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, late on Tuesday night. “His vacillation and violence responsible for situation.” But after three months of protests, many activists are awaiting a response from Europe that is tougher than a critical tweet. This time, it looks like they may get what they want, with EU officials planning to meet up on Thursday to discuss imposing sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown.
In a statement last night, Russia’s foreign ministry blamed the West for the violence, calling it a “direct result” of European politicians and structures that had turned a blind eye to the radical forces in Ukraine from the start of the protests. “The opposition no longer controls the situation among its supporters,” it added. Russia is still busy with the Sochi Olympics, but there is concern about what Moscow might do once Putin is no longer busy watching people slide around on the ice.
On Wednesday morning, the situation was calmer, but the battle does not appear to be over. The Trade Unions building was still smoldering, with dark smoke billowing from the upper floors. The metro was still not functioning, and schools were closed. Protesters set about everyday chores like preparing Molotov cocktails, crushing paving stones to hurl at riot police later on, and having a bite to eat.
In characteristic form, Yanukovych rounded off the events of the previous night with a statement, published at 5:38 AM, calling for dialogue. “It’s my lifelong principle: no power is worth the spilling of a drop of blood,” he wrote. Which was a weird thing to say, given that so far, more than a few drops have been spilled in the battle on the Maidan, and there is no sign yet of that stopping.
Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman
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