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Ukraine is on the brink of catastrophe. Viktor Yanukovych still has time to avert disaster, but he must act fast

As the violence escalates, so too does the risk that the protests will spread

With the first fatalities in the pitched battles on the streets of Kiev yesterday, the situation in Ukraine is becoming ever more alarming.

The $20bn bailout from Moscow last month was concerning enough as an emblem of Ukraine’s inescapable reliance on cheap Russian gas. What was worse, the tilt to the east put paid to an imminent “association agreement” with Brussels to open up trade and, ultimately, pave the way for entry into the EU. And now the debacle is ushering in a new authoritarianism as President Viktor Yanukovych tries to suppress the pro-European protests that have resulted from his miscalculations.

Last week, laws were rushed through the Rada which bode ill for basic freedoms in Ukraine. As of yesterday, when the rules came into force, libel became a criminal offence, for example, and internet media outlets were required to register with the authorities. The legislation also clamps down on public protests, with the threat of 10 years in prison for blockading government buildings, fines for wearing masks or helmets to demonstrations, and driving bans for convoys of more than five cars.

The immediate aim is evident: to clear the protests that have been a feature in Kiev since December. But there are suggestions that the laws could also be used to keep Mr Yanukovych in power after next year’s elections, even if voters wish otherwise. No wonder that opponents have warned that Ukraine is becoming a police state; no wonder there has been a chorus of disapproval from Europe and the US; and no wonder that demonstrations flared anew at the weekend thanks, at least in part, to an influx of more moderate protesters galvanised by the government’s latest swipe at basic liberties.

The clashes with police every night since have been anything but moderate, though. And as the violence escalates, so too does the risk that the protests will spread nationwide. The most immediate priority is to rein in the bloodshed – and that means restraint on both sides, no matter how serious the grievances may be. But it is Mr Yanukovych who must lead the way to the desperately needed political solution. His apparent offer of talks with his opponents would be welcome, had it not come complete with a mediator picked by the President. He must go further – repealing the new draconian laws and initiating open discussions.

In fairness, Mr Yanukovych is no simple tyrant-in-the-making. He was elected, in 2010, in a vote that observers hailed as free and fair. Equally, although polls suggest that the majority of Ukrainians do not back his cold shoulder to Europe, he does still command considerable support, particularly in the east, where cultural and trade links with Russia are strong. To note the nuances in the background, however, is not to condone the abuses in the here and now. The president’s legitimacy is hanging by a thread and the international community must do all it can to focus his mind. Hints of sanctions from the US will help. Meanwhile, Brussels must make clear that valuable links forged as a prelude to EU integration can – and will – be undone.

On its current path, Ukraine is sliding steadily towards catastrophe. But there is still time for Mr Yanukovych to act. He, and his country, have everything to lose if he does not.