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24 Jan, 2014 12:48

Ukraine protest pressure: Kiev faces heat from abroad & within

Violent clashes in Ukraine have triggered an avalanche of criticism from abroad, although unqualified support for those seeking to topple the Ukrainian government may actually be fueling the bloodshed.

The ‘Euromaidan’ protests have consumed the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, for the past two months, sparked by President Viktor Yanukovich’s government’s decision to suspend preparations for signing an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union.

Simmering tensions reached boiling point on Sunday after the government introduced controversial laws curbing protests in the country and banning the wearing of helmets and gas masks at rallies.

The police crackdown has at times been brutal. The violence employed by the primary group involved in the clashes, right wing extremists like Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) who are committed to overthrowing the “occupation” government at any cost, has been no less restrained.

For many Western officials, however, the blame for nearly a week of chaos which has turned downtown Kiev into a veritable battleground lies firmly at the feet of Yanukovich.

On Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced Ukraine’s ambassador to Paris would be summoned over the violence in his country.

"I have given instructions to the Foreign Ministry to summon the Ukrainian ambassador in France today which is a gesture to show France's condemnation [(of the situation]," Fabius said.

Germany also summoned Ukraine's ambassador in Berlin to urge an end to the government's use of force against protestors.

"The aim of this summons is to make clear to Ukraine's official representative in Germany what the position of the German government is," said spokesman Martin Schaefer.

Schaefer added that apart from seeking an end to the violence, Kiev should reexamine the recent anti-protest legislation.

"We expect Ukraine's ambassador to pass on this message without delay to his government, the president and the prime minister."

Kiev, January 24, 2014 (AFP Photo / Vasily MAaximov)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on Thursday shied away from slapping sanctions on Ukraine, said her government is in “contact with opposition forces via various channels” and is in the process of determining what it “can do for now.”

“We expect the Ukrainian government to ensure basic rights — particularly the possibility to stage peaceful demonstrations - to protect lives, and that violence not be used,” she told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Earlier this week, the head of the EU parliament Martin Schulz called for immediate elections in the country, saying “in a situation like this, any reasonable president would dissolve parliament and call a snap election.”

Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU Commission President who has arranged to send top European diplomats to calm the situation in Kiev, has warned of “possible consequences” if the situation does not improve. He said that “if there is a systematic violation of human rights, then we have to rethink our relationship with Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, Washington on Wednesday announced sanctions against Kiev, withdrawing visas from individuals it has implicated in violence.

On Thursday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing that tensions in the Ukraine are a direct result of the government failure to acknowledge the "legitimate" grievances of its people.

“[The Ukrainian government] has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law,” Carney said.

Kiev, January 23, 2014 (AFP Photo / Vasily Maximov)

Determined not to see his country ripped apart, President Yanukovich has warned foreign politicians against trying to influence which direction the country will take.

"Can politicians from the West and East really help us? Let's be frank: they are fighting for their influence over Ukraine. Our state is independent. We can and we will decide our fate independently."

Opposition leaders implored protesters in Kiev to keep observing a truce with riot police late on Thursday night after long talks with the government failed to result in any significant breakthroughs.

But with right-wing extremists directing the violence outside of the auspices of the three established anti-government leaders and the West putting responsibility for halting the violence on the government, the bloodshed is likely to continue unabated.

"This is war. Yanukovich should resign. This is our demand," Pravy Sektor leader Andrey Tarasenko, told AFP.

Tarasenko said Pravy Sektor would not be satisfied with merely rescinding the protest laws or giving in to the mainstream oppositions’ demands, saying Yanukovich’s ouster was the only solution.

"We have no options. We are dealing with criminals who kidnap people, shoot them," he said, alleging serial rights violations by the authorities.

"No compromises are possible with the gang. It’s us or them. Either we will win, or they will destroy us."

For more, watch Peter Oliver’s full report.

Kiev, January 23, 2014 (AFP Photo / Volodymyr Shuvayev)