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A protester guards the barricades in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine.
Associated Press/Photo by Efrem Lukatsky
A protester guards the barricades in front of riot police in Kiev, Ukraine.

Smoldering discontent erupts in Ukraine

Ukraine | Government agrees to some concessions after last week’s violent protests

After two months of anti-government protests that have spread from the capitol to Ukraine’s outermost cities, Ukrainian officials have taken the first steps to meet protestors’ demands. Monday afternoon, President Viktor Yanukovych agreed to scrap the anti-protest legislation that sparked the most recent, violent outbursts.

The demonstrations turned deadly last week when at least three protesters died on Wednesday—the first deaths since the violence began on Nov. 30—sparking uprisings in more than 10 central and western Ukrainian cities on Thursday and Friday. 

“It’s difficult to believe that it’s come to this in Ukraine,” Jonathan Eide, country coordinator for Mission to the World, said last week. “As I write, in the center of [Kiev] there is a cobblestone catapult throwing paving stones at the police. Incredible. Tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets have been used by the police.”

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The demonstrations—dubbed Euromaidan, or “Eurosquare”—began in November after Yanukovych backed out of a free trade deal with the European Union, citing economic ties with Russia. Many Ukrainians carry bitter memories of life under Soviet rule and Stalin-era famines. 

When Yanukovych pushed through a set of laws last week that curtailed the right to peacefully protest (including a ban on protective helmets), protesters were outraged and the demonstration in Kiev’s Independence Square—where protestors have occupied a large portion of the city center for the past two months—turned violent.

Authorities denied using live ammunition against protesters, but at least two deaths from gunshot wounds have been reported and stories of torture at the hands of the elite Berkut riot police are beginning to circulate. 

Thousands have stormed cities in the western half of Ukraine, where anti-Yanukovych sentiment runs high. During an uprising in Lviv—280 miles west of Kiev—protestors forced their way into the office of Governor Oleh Salo and forced him to write a resignation letter as they shouted, “Revolution!”

On Friday, some of the protesters lit tires near Kiev’s Dynamo football stadium but generally seemed willing to honor the truce launched by opposition leaders called on Yanukovych to amend anti-protest laws and reshuffle the government. 

The president agreed to address the demands at a special session of parliament scheduled for Tuesday, but the weekend brought more troubles for Ukraine’s ruling party: Protesters occupied a Ministry of Justice building, setting up bags of snow outside as a barricade. Building seizures have increased over the past few days and opposition leaders are threatening to take over all government buildings in Kiev if tomorrow’s talks end in a gridlock. 

Signs of government censorship are spawning frantic updates on social media sites and email chains. Diane McMurrin, who founded Music Mission Kiev with her husband Roger, wrote in an update that the government is confiscating cell phones from protesters in Independence Square: “Internet and phone services have been blocked or disturbed at various times by the government. We don’t know how much longer we can get news to you. This message is written without the three key words for censorship.” 

According to reports from Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, at least 52 of the arrested protestors are being investigated for “mass riots,” a new criminal charge which could result in an eight-year prison sentence. 

“I’ve lived here for 20 years and it has never been this bad,” McMurrin told me.

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