James J. Coyle: Radicals take over Ukraine protests
Street demonstrations have resumed in Kiev, capital of Ukraine. Unlike the 2013 demonstrations, which protested President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to turn from the European Union, the new violence is being led by anarchists.
Jan. 19, several hundred rioters on Hrushevsky Street, near the site of previous demonstrations on Independence Square, attacked police lines with sticks and bats. They threw Molotov cocktails that burned police buses. There were pitched battles in which both sides threw rocks. Eighty security troops were injured, and 103 demonstrators were treated for injuries. Police arrested 32, including two reporters working for the U.S.-financed Radio Liberty.
Opposition figures, such as Fatherland party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who had been ringleaders in the November/December demonstrations, condemned the violence. “Violence leads to nothing but mayhem,” Yatsenyuk said. “With radical actions, we destroy our probable victory.”
What changed the attitude of the opposition leaders? First, the government appeared willing to negotiate. According to opposition parliamentarian Andriy Pavlovsky, the government announced it would not implement a new law forbidding street demonstrations. In a nationally televised address, Yanukovych called for dialogue and compromise.
Second, and more importantly, the demonstrators themselves have changed. The organizers of the violence appear to be members of a right-wing youth group, the Right Sector movement. This group is not part of the larger mass of demonstrators camped on the square, but a radical fringe that occupied the Kiev City Hall building in December. The BBC reports that the backbone of the organization is formed by Russian-speaking soccer fans sharing nationalist views.
While most members of the Right Sector oppose Ukraine joining the Russia-sponsored Customs Union, they also oppose moving closer to the European Union. The Right Sector considers the EU to be an oppressor. Instead, the group wants to use the unrest to “destroy the state skeleton” and allow them to build a new state, supposedly in their own image and likeness.
The “mainstream” demonstrators have grown tired of the stalemate, and the inability of opposition parties to influence government decisions. It does not appear, however, that the protesters have joined the anarchists in their attacks on the police.
As dire as it appears, the attacks by the Right Sector offer an opportunity to resolve the political crisis that has paralyzed the country for three months. For the first time, the centrist opposition and the government are in agreement on something: that the Right Sector movement must be stopped. If the government decides to break the violence through police action, conditions will worsen. If, on the other hand, the government enters negotiations with the opposition parties, a peaceful ending to the unrest is within reach. James J. Coyle is a professor and the director of Global Education at Chapman University and chair of the Eurasian Committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy.