Struggle in Ukraine

Two large, swirling crowds faced off in Kiev on Saturday in public squares less than a quarter of a mile apart. One was the huge, anti-government, pro-Europe demonstration that has seized and electrified this capital since late last month. The other was composed of tens of thousands who poured into central Kiev for a mass counter rally in support of the embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych.

By evening, the pro-government crowd had disappeared for the night, leaving the police guarding a virtually empty plaza. The anti-government protesters in Independence Square, by contrast, were settling in for another night in the cold, waiting with excitement for a performance by Okean Elzy, one of Ukraine’s most popular rock bands.
The staying power of the government opposition was one of several signals that momentum in the more than three-week-old uprising over the president’s refusal to sign far-reaching political and trade accords with the European Union may be shifting.
After weeks in which Yanukovych - and Russian opponents of the accords - appeared to have the upper hand, there were signs that the president was no longer so sure of himself. After finally meeting with opposition leaders during roundtable talks Friday, Yanukovych, who had initially been dismissive of the protest movement and even flown off for a trip to China, announced Saturday that he had indefinitely suspended two officials, the Kiev city manager, Oleksandr Popoov, and deputy national security chief, Volodomyr Sivkovych, over allegations about their role in a violent crackdown by the police on protesters on Nov. 30.

A statement on the president’s website said they were suspected of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. It was unclear that either of those men had ordered the use of force, but the need to show officials being held accountable underscored the increasing pressure that Yanukovych is facing to make concessions.

His moves came after he appeared to be losing support among the country’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen, known as oligarchs.

At the same time, the Western countries that want Ukraine in a tighter embrace have said that they have limited room to adjust a financial bailout package for the troubled economy that Yanukovych could accept.

“Europe and U.S. policy was on the verge of a colossal geopolitical mistake,” said Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine with the Atlantic Council of the United States. “The policy was only vindicated by the people of Ukraine. They bought into the shining City on a Hill even if their leaders didn’t.”Even more significant, said Karatnycky, who was in Kiev last week, was the shifting support among oligarchs who control several factions in Parliament - a move that he said had probably been encouraged by the continued strength of the crowds on the street. On Friday, Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest man and a close ally of Yanukovych, issued a statement in support of the anti-government protest movement.

Enough votes

It was the clearest sign yet that the oligarchs are worried about the continuing instability and deepening financial crisis, and that they may back a change at the highest levels of government. At the very least, it shows that Yanukovych is unlikely to control enough votes to win support in Parliament for declaring a state of emergency longer than 48 hours, which almost certainly would be needed to break up the protests.

After Yanukovych barely budged during the talks Friday,  Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the leader in Parliament of the opposition Fatherland Party, said that he was working with lawmakers in the majority Party of Regions, normally controlled by Yanukovych, and that he hoped he would soon have support to oust the government - perhaps as soon as Tuesday.

The seeming shift in the dynamic comes as the West scrambles to regroup after Russia and its hard realpolitik outmaneuvered Europe, which had relied on its soft power.
For both sides, the stakes are high. Western Europe is emerging from a five-year fiscal malaise and is intent on renewing the eastward export of Western values; Russia is intent on blocking that advance and guarding its sphere of influence.

“We went to a knife fight with a baguette,” said Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Kremlin had threatened trade sanctions if Ukraine signed the pact with the European Union. Moscow also indicated a potential willingness to spend billions in a bailout for Ukraine, to protect its military and financial interests, which include Black Sea naval bases and transnational gas pipelines.

Western officials, by contrast, mostly confined themselves for weeks to insisting that Yanukovych listen to his many citizens who want closer ties to Western Europe. Many officials believed that the advantages of Western integration were self-evident and did not require a hard sell, especially given past experience in the Baltics and Poland, Ukraine’s neighbor.

The West may also have miscalculated by pushing Yanukovych too hard on releasing Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, his political nemesis. Of course, Russia could still win out in the battle for influence. Yanukovych is due to meet with its president, Vladimir Putin, on Tuesday. They have been in negotiations over a desperately needed financial aid package that could include discounts on natural gas and, perhaps, a bridge loan.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Saturday joined the parade of Western officials who had been arriving in Kiev to show support for the protesters. He had dinner with the three main protest leaders in Parliament: Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko, who leads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, and Oleg Tyagnibok of Svoboda.

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