Ukraine on Edge
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|Martin Barillas||February 21st 2014|
Cutting Edge Contributor
A senior European Union diplomat said Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition representatives are expected to sign an agreement on February 21 aimed at ending months of bloody political unrest. According to VOA News, the diplomat said the pact would provide for some constitutional reforms. Yanukovych announced the preliminary agreement today on his website but the opposition has yet to comment.
Live video feeds on February 21 from Kiev's Maidan Square, which protesters have occupied for weeks and where clashes with security forces have harvested perhaps dozens of deaths and hundreds of wounded, showed relative calm after several days and nights of violence. Orthodox and Catholic clergy led services at around noon local time in which they and the thousands of participants chanted and asked for God's forgiveness for the violence. Several priests asked for divine blessings on Ukraine, which has been caught in a struggle that has pitted distinct regions of the country against each other.
Negotiations between government and opposition representatives were brokered by the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Poland who worked overnight to reach a deal. The president's web site said Russia was also involved in the talks. The protests in Ukraine, in which government buildings have been seized by protesters and others firebombed, were sparked by accusations of corruption leveled at President Yanukovych, as well as his government's refusal to sign on to a deal for accession to the European Union. Western Ukraine and Kiev have been historically linked to the West, while eastern Ukraine is mostly Russophile and favorable to Yanukovych.
There are reports that shots were fired in the early morning hours near Maidan Square in Kiev, even after the tentative deal was announced. The Ukrainian government blamed the gunshots on protesters battling police, but that report has not been confirmed. This followed bloody battles between security forces and anti-government protesters on February 20 despite an initial that was implemented a day earlier. Local officials said 39 people were killed, bringing the three-day toll to at least 69 fatalities. There are reports that the death toll is far higher. Western media reporters witnessed snipers in government uniform firing from rooftops at protesters. Police have also been killed and wounded. Medical officials working with protesters said 70 to 100 people died on February 20, some by government sniper fire. Hundreds of others were reported wounded. Churches have been turned into makeshift treatment centers and surgical facilities. Television reports showed showed scenes of chaos, as anti-government protesters firebombed government buildings and some police declined to intervene.
The Obama administration reacted with a strongly worded protest, saying it was "outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people." The White House called on Yanukovych "to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv and to respect the right of peaceful protest." It also urged protesters to "express themselves peacefully" and pressed the Ukrainian military "not to get involved in a conflict that can and should be resolved by political means."
European Union foreign ministers agreed in an emergency session held in Brussels on February 20 to impose sanctions on Ukrainian officials deemed responsible for orchestrating the violence in the capital. The measures would include visa bans, asset freezes and restrictions on the export of anti-riot gear to the Ukrainian government. Washington cancelled visas for approximately 20 high-level Ukrainian officials.
Yanukovych and the leaders of anti-government protests had agreed on a truce on February 19, claiming that is was aimed at "ending the bloodshed and stabilizing the situation...in the interests of social peace." The truce, however, dissolved within hours. Some reports suggest that extreme "autonomous nationalists" known as Privaty Sektor and football hooligans were largely responsible for the firebombing and deaths of police officers. While these and other nationalists claim to be independent of the majority Svoboda Party, some observers contend that there remain strategic ties between them. Nationalists have been blamed for at least two anti-Semitic incidents outside of Kiev. In one case, a rabbinical student was savagely attacked by blade-wielding Ukrainians and suffered a significant blood loss. Subsequently, a teacher of Hebrew was followed home by a gang who subjected him to a beat down.
The protests erupted in November 2013 when Yanukovych backed away from a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with, and a significant loan from Russia.
Cutting Edge contributor Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.com