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

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence