Ukraine Political Confrontation Re-Escalates
January 21, 2014 • 11:55AM

There has been an escalation of political tension and street violence in Ukraine over the past 48 hours. On Sunday, the ongoing Euromaidan demonstrations in favor of the rejected EU Association Agreement were larger than in recent weeks, as organizers took advantage of anger over strict anti-demonstration laws passed by the Parliament last week. Late Sunday afternoon, yesterday, unidentified men among the demonstrators, wearing orange helmets and gas masks, stormed police positions which had been set up in defense of government buildings.

Prominent Euromaidan leaders Arkadi Yatsenyuk (Batkivshchyna Party) and Vitali Klitschko (Udar Party) attempted to stop the assault, with Yatsenyuk screaming from the Euromaidan stage that the attack on police should be stopped and former heavyweight boxing champion Klitschko imposing his body between the attackers and the police. Video clips showed Klitschko being overcome by fire-extinguisher fumes, aimed at him by the attackers. The fighting continued for hours, with several hundred people injured, including both police and demonstrators. Two police buses were burned.

In the midst of this fray, Klitschko ran off to meet with President Victor Yanukovych, who then called for civil peace and announced a working group of the government to meet with the opposition. Those talks began today, but opposition leaders are demanding that Yanukovych personally come to negotiate on their terms, rather than sending security official Andrei Klyuyev.

The pretext of the stepped-up Euromaidan demonstration was legislation rushed through Parliament last week, severely restricting street demonstrations. Use of a stage and PA system without a permit has been banned, along with the wearing of masks at demonstrations. Blockading of public buildings will now incur a five-year jail term. Quite apart from opposition complaints that the ruling Party of Regions violated procedure in rushing these laws through, it is obvious that new destabilization capabilities have been built up during the New Year/Christmas period (the twelfth day of Orthodox Christmas was Jan. 18). One new tactic is called AutoMaidan: caravans of vehicles, driving around the country under Ukrainian and EU flags to extend the protests to various places. The new laws forbid more than five cars to drive together. Some reports said that the Sunday attacks were staged by a previously little-known right-wing group called Right Sector.

Although the attacking militants yesterday reportedly chanted slogans of the racist Svoboda Party, its leader Oleh Tyahnybok today denied affiliation with them and joined other opposition leaders in calling them provocateurs. Jailed former PM and Batkivshchyna founder Yulia Tymoshenko, however, expressed solidarity with the activists who opted for violence on Sunday evening, issuing a statement that the authorities had earned that by refusing to cave in to the demands of the Euromaidan while it was peaceful.

Both U.S. and EU officials continue to make noises about possible sanctions against the Ukrainian government. "The U.S. will continue to consider additional steps—including sanctions—in response to the use of violence," wire services reported National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden saying on Jan. 19. The U.S. Embassy in Kiev put out a call for all sides to desist from violence, but also demanding that the government negotiate with the opposition on its demands.