Thousands of riot police officers stormed a three-week old pro-Europe demonstration in the centre of Kiev on Wednesday morning, hacking their way through barricades and forcing back protesters who stood in their way.
For weeks Ukrainian protesters have turned out in the tens of thousands against a government decision to abandon a historic free trade and political cooperation agreement with the EU. Their ranks grew to the hundreds of thousands when riot police savagely dispersed students at a pro-Europe protest in the early hours of 30 November.
In a tremendous display of contempt for the European leaders he once courted, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ordered police to destroy the protest camp during the visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and shortly after she had left the camp.
A nearby church sounded alarm bells as battalions of riot police sealed off Maidan, Kiev’s main square, and priests led a prayer service as protesters linked arms to resist the assault. Women were asked to leave the square as men donned orange hard hats and surgical masks to protect against tear gas.
Demonstrators chanted “we will not leave” and “Kiev, wake up” as they squared off against police and special forces in helmets, gas masks and body armour. The stand-off lasted almost an hour in temperatures well below freezing before the two sides clashed.
Government forces assaulted through heavy smoke from flaming braziers, and to the sound of the national anthem being played from the opposition stage in the centre of the square. They formed huge columns to force back thousands of demonstrators, who attempted to stand their ground despite heavy snow and ice. For several hours an enormous scrummage ensued, with troops exerting a huge amount of effort to gain several yards, only to be pushed back. Dozens were injured as they slipped in the crush.
Reinforcements arrived and police punched through opposition lines, allowing them to clear large parts of the square. Tents in the cleared areas were instantly torn apart, and personal belongings left behind were trashed. Workers from the city municipality destroyed barricades with electric saws.
Officers refrained from using batons, and resistance was, for the most part, peaceful. Periodic scuffles broke out, and while reporters observed a number of arrests being made, there were also unconfirmed reports that some of those arrested were later beaten in custody.
A more aggressive core of opposition supporters formed lines outside the two government buildings they had occupied, brandishing metal poles and wooden sticks.
The US was quick to condemn the police action, with Secretary of State John Kerry expressing ‘disgust’ at the decision to “meet peaceful protesters with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
He described the government response as “neither acceptable nor befitting a democracy”.
The EU had planned to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine last month, and was shocked when President Yanukovych walked away from the negotiating table a week beforehand, citing overwhelming pressure from Moscow.
Alarmed at the prospect of ceding influence over its former Soviet satellite to the West, Russia introduced trade restrictions on Ukrainian imports and threatened to hike gas prices if Ukraine signed the Agreement.
Having already turned their back on the prospect of European integration, President Yanukovych and his government now look set to reverse democratic progress made in Ukraine over the last decade.
On Monday President Yanukovych had said he wanted to defuse tensions, agreeing to separate talks with Baroness Ashton and three former Ukrainian Presidents on Tuesday. Yanukovych said he would sign the Agreement in March, and release a number of detained demonstrators.
But on Monday night, several outlying protest camps in the capital were cleared from the government quarter, an opposition headquarters stormed by armed police, and at least three independent or opposition news outlets raided. All the organisations had their electronic equipment confiscated.
Demonstrators said they were concerned Ukraine could become like neighbouring Belarus, where any protest is quickly and often brutally repressed.
Having already survived a no-confidence vote, the government appears confident that it retains enough support among Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs and its eastern, pro-Russian regions, to snuff out the pro-Europe protests with force.
But Arseniy Yatseniuk, leading Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition Batkivshchyna party while she is in prison, took a different view on the police assault. Retreating from Maidan to opposition headquarters, he said that “the President is an idiot”, and had only inflamed tensions.
As more and more Ukrainians flocked to the defence of the only partially cleared square on Wednesday morning, it looked as though Yanukovych had indeed miscalculated.
Responding to the continued closure of nearby metro stations, Kiev taxi drivers announced a general strike in order to ferry people, free of charge, to Maidan. By daybreak police on the square began to look heavily outnumbered by an increasingly angry crowd.