In Ukraine, a deepening divide between the country’s political leadership and popular aspirations.
Anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine, now two months old, turned violent on Wednesday, when at least two protesters died from gunshot wounds after clashing with the police in Kiev’s Independence Square, also called the Maidan. Since November, thousands of Ukrainians have been assembling at the barricades to express their dissatisfaction with President Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to spurn an integration pact with the EU — a pact that, by all accounts, was overwhelmingly popular — in favour of more closely aligning with Russia.
The US and EU called for the standoff to be resolved peacefully, while Russia predictably accused the West of inciting the demonstrators.
In recent days, Yanukovych has tried to stifle dissent with new anti-protest laws that resemble repressive Russian legislation. For instance, the new legislation makes it illegal to conduct “extremist activities”, which includes expressing views that could be labelled in this manner in any medium. Organisations that receive direct or indirect financial support from outside Ukraine must brand themselves “foreign agents” and furnish public accounts of their activities.
Yanukovych’s authoritarian turn has injected a violent note into the so-far peaceful protests. The opposition reframed its demands to ask for early elections and for the new laws to be repealed. Yanukovych was given a 24-hour deadline in which to call snap elections after a meeting with the three major opposition leaders failed to yield a compromise, and there exists a very real possibility that Ukraine will descend into chaos as the violence escalates.
Yanukovych’s actions have also begun to erode his credibility with the West — Ukraine PM Mykola Azarov’s invitation to the WEF in Davos was reportedly rescinded. To regain that trust, and the trust of his own people, Yanukovych must be seen to be open to engaging with the protesters’ demands.