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Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Ukraine?

The root causes of the street clashes and political turmoil orginate from a political system marked by the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, rampant corruption, arbitrary justice and police violence – writes Natalia Shapovalova

Ukraine’s capital Kiev has turned into a warzone between protesters and those who protect government buildings. Never in the country’s history had freedom of expression, assembly and information been so costly. So far there have been at least four dead, hundreds detained, hundreds injured and dozens disappeared. Continuous repression of protesters and police reinforcements could indicate an armed crackdown on Euromaidan and the introduction of martial law.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament has finally shown a sign of independent action by revoking the so-called ‘dictatorial’ laws, or anti-protest rules, passed on January 16 and which severely violated constitutional freedoms and rights. It remains to be seen whether parliament will fully reclaim its powers and push for a return to the 2004 constitution that would reduce presidential powers and allow for the formation of a new coalition government in which security forces would be under parliamentary control.

In every conflict, there are at least two sides. In Ukraine, on one side, the Euromaidan protesters represent millions of Ukrainians who fight against corruption, injustice and the lack of rights. On the other side stand president Viktor Yanukovych and his regime – members of government, parliament, local authorities, judges, police and oligarchs – who enjoy the status quo that allows for their personal enrichment.

There are also other players. Ukraine’s parliamentary opposition intends to represent protesters in political talks with the president and in parliament as well as guiding their actions in the regions. The Kremlin also has high stakes in this conflict, as Yanukovich is a tactical ally. There are unconfirmed reports about Russian ammunition supplies and security services – and special police units – operating in Kiev. Meanwhile Ukrainian oligarchs, who until recently stayed away from the political crisis, have begun to take sides. A few days before the parliament met to discuss the anti-protest laws, the corporation of Rinat Akhmetov – the richest man in Ukraine – warned against the use of force and weapons in the conflict. Oligarchs fear that violence could drive the country into chaos and economic downturn; and MPs affiliated with oligarchs were the ones who supported the repeal of the laws.

Yanukovych’s regime has tried to split the protesters into two groups – radical and peaceful. Recently resigned Prime Minister Azarov had called Euromaidan protesters extremists. The ministry of interior has echoed Soviet-time Russian propaganda claiming that militants from western Ukraine – the region that was annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War and where the anti-communist resistance movement lasted until mid-1950s – are the ones responsible for the seizing of government buildings all over Ukraine and that the killed protesters were shot by snipers of a far-right extremist organisation.

While this strategy has helped fuel Ukraine’s geographical split by inflaming some in eastern Ukraine, where the rhetoric of ‘the Ukrainian-speaking agricultural and nationalistic west’ against ‘the Russian-speaking industrial and pro-Russian east’ has been played during every presidential election, overall it has not managed to dissipate the protests. The current regime has lost any legitimacy it might have had in the eyes of protesters.

The streets refused to obey the anti-protest laws and Ukraine’s revolution has spread, first to the west of Ukraine and then to central and eastern regions – where Euromaidan supporters have seized or attempted to seize, blocked or picketed state regional administrations; refusing to recognise the authority of their rulers. Crimea, Kharkiv and Donbass, in which many people are rather dissatisfied with the country’s situation but still support the government, remain the last untouched bastions of Yanukovych’s power. Although even there small Euromaidan rallies gather regularly. In some regions, protesters have acted on the opposition’s call to create parallel bodies – people’s councils, governments, militias and so on – and have established people’s councils.

Neither Yanukovych nor the protesters are ready to negotiate. Most people on the street will not accept anything but Yanukovych’s resignation. Euromaidan activists demand that detained protesters be released and freed from criminal prosecution and those responsible for police violence, torture, abductions and murders face punishment. They do not believe that this can be achieved while Yanukovych remains in power. The opposition has little room for manoeuvre, given that the protesters are also critical of the three opposition leaders and might not endorse the results of any negotiation process. In fact, some protesters are out of the opposition’s control as clashes with police or the seizing of ministerial buildings in Kiev have shown.

For his part, Yanukovych remains confident that he can keep the situation ‘under control’. He has ceded to some demands of the opposition but nothing that could have shaken his position. Yanukovych counted on his offer to join the government not being accepted by the opposition and that it would nonetheless send the message that he is open to negotiation – and willing to compromise. He also accepted the resignation of Mykola Azarov knowing that his government will remain in charge until he nominates another prime minister. Meanwhile, his elder son’s friend and former first vice-prime minister Sergiy Arbuzov will be acting premier.

Following the revocation of the anti-protests laws, parliamentary debates are taking place on amnesty conditions for arrested protesters. Another major challenge is to find an agreement on how to return to the 2004 constitution, which was overthrown by the Constitutional Court in 2010. This would reduce presidential powers and allow Ukraine’s parliament to form a new government based on a parliamentary majority with the participation of the opposition and taking control of security forces the main tool of Yanukovych’s repression. This, however, will largely depend on the readiness of Yanukovych’s party members and oligarchs to challenge him.

The dismissal of the government, the abolishment of repressive laws and a promised amnesty for political prisoners will help loosen tensions on the streets of Kiev but is not enough to address the root causes of the crisis. They lay deep in a political system marked by the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, rampant corruption, arbitrary justice and police violence. Much more domestic and international pressure is needed to push the regime to reform. If Ukraine’s parliament reclaims its powers, it can offer a peaceful way out of the crisis and prevent the country from spiralling into further violence and a potential division of Ukraine should the current chaos endure.

Natalia Shapovalova is an associate researcher at the Spanish-based think-tank FRIDE

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