Yanukovich retreating in Ukraine?
posted at 12:41 pm on January 24, 2014 by Ed Morrissey
So far reports are sketchy about the results of meetings between Viktor Yanukovich and religious leaders attempting to mediate the crisis in Ukraine that threatens to turn into a civil war. The Associated Press reports that the president has backed off of his hard line against protests and offered some concessions to the opposition encamped in the streets of Kiev, including an end to a disastrous attempt to outlaw demonstrations that led to fatal clashes this week:
At a meeting with religious leaders Friday, Yanukovych vowed that a special parliament meeting next Tuesday will push through changes to the Cabinet, grant amnesty to dozens of jailed activists and change harsh-anti-protest legislation, the Interfax and other news agencies reported.
If confirmed, those would be significant concessions, but stop short of the new elections demanded by protesters. The amnesty might go a long way toward getting the opposition to accept the compromise, although they will want to know what happened to several of their members who seem to have “disappeared” in custody of the police.
A larger concession might be in the choice of mediators for the conflict:
A senior European Union official met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Friday, amid an uneasy political stalemate after days of clashes between police and protesters.
Opposition leaders have demanded the resignation of the government and early elections.
Yanukovych’s presidential website reported his meeting with Commissioner for EU Enlargement Stefan Fule but gave no detail of what was discussed.
Boxer-turned-opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said outside mediation was needed if any progress is to be made in talks between the opposition and government.
“International mediators must be involved in any discussion of the crisis in Ukraine,” he said.
The conflict started when Yanukovich reversed course on a proposed trade agreement with the EU and signed one with Russia instead. The betrayal sparked the march on Kiev, and led to the standoff and the ham-handed attempt to make demonstrations illegal rather than deal with the issue at hand. That radicalized both sides, which led to the violence. If Yanukovich accepts EU mediation, that will send a signal that the direction of his government into Moscow’s orbit may stop at least temporarily. One can imagine that Vladimir Putin won’t be happy to see that development and may have his own mediators on the way to deal with the EU. With the Sochi Olympics threatening to turn into a disaster, though, Putin has his hands full at the moment.
This hasn’t helped Yanukovich, either:
A video posted to YouTube, showing a protester made to strip naked apart from his shoes and kicked by police as he enters a van, has been widely circulated on Ukrainian media.
Ukraine’s Interior Ministry has apologized for the behavior of those shown in the footage and says it is investigating the incident.
A 17-year-old who says he was taking pictures of the protests, Myhaylo Nyskohuz, told CNN he was tortured after he was seized by Ukraine’s riot police, or Berkut.
“They beat me on my legs and ankles, they sprayed my whole body with pepper spray and made me lie naked and sing the national anthem,” he said, looking battered and bruised.
“They stripped me and took me through a live corridor of around 40 or 50 riot police, and each one of them beat me.”
The protesters have taken over a ministry building, ostensibly to keep warm:
After meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych for several hours late Thursday, opposition leaders told the crowds that he had promised to ensure the release of dozens of protesters detained after clashes with police, and stop further detentions. They urged the protesters to maintain a shaky truce following violent street battles in the capital, but were booed by demonstrators eager to resume clashes with police.
The truce has held, but early Friday protesters broke into the downtown building of the Ministry of Agricultural Policy, meeting no resistance. “We need to keep people warm in the frost,” said one of the protesters, Andriy Moiseenko. “We cannot have people sleeping in tents all the time.”
The demonstrators allowed ministry workers to take their possessions, but wouldn’t allow them to go to work.
The move followed the seizure of local governors’ offices in several western regions on Thursday.
Even if the opposition accepts the concessions, the protests won’t stop on a dime. Protesters also reinforced and expanded their barricades overnight, and show no signs of slowing down the peaceful demonstrations, even if violence has abated for the time being:
This has spread to several cities, especially in the more pro-EU western part of Ukraine. Even if Yanukovich holds onto Kiev and settles the situation down, Ukraine will still be on the edge of a civil war. An election might be the only tonic at this point.