When children released white doves on St. Peter's Square as part of Pope Francis's prayer for peace in Ukraine on Sunday, the birds were immediately attacked by a crow and a seagull. Facile as the symbolism may seem, it's an appropriate reflection of how dire the situation has become: The rising hostility between radical protesters and President Viktor Yanukovych is threatening to turn a nation of 46 million into another Yugoslavia.
Angered by the deaths of three protesters last week, Ukrainians hostile to Yanukovich have seized local government buildings throughout the nation. As of Jan. 27, the rebels controlled administrative buildings throughout western Ukraine, in three central regions and in the capital, Kiev, according to a map published by the web site Inspired.com.ua. Only in Donetsk, Yanukovych's home base, and in the pro-Russian Crimea have there been no attempts to seize power. Riot police managed to put down rebellions in four regional centers -- Sumy, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporozhye and Cherkasy.
Yanukovych appears to lack either the military force or the determination to crack down everywhere. Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev said the military would remain neutral and described calls for its involvement on either side as "provocations." Riot police, who have stood faithfully behind Yanukovych, are spread thinly. The dispatching of thousands of police to battle protesters in Kiev has left regional centers inadequately protected -- particularly in the west where the opposition to Yanukovych is strongest.
Reports from Yanukovich's Regions Party and a carefully-worded statement from Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, suggest the president's allies are against putting down the rebellion by force.
"We are exclusively for a peaceful scenario for resolving the conflict," Regions Party member Tariel Vasadze told theinsider.com.ua after a meeting between party members and Yanukovych, where lawmakers floated the idea of letting the opposition have some ministerial posts as a compromise. Akhmetov, whose fortune Bloomberg estimates at $12.3 billion, issued a statement through his holding company, SCM: "The only way out is to go from street clashes and attempts to put them down to constructive negotiations to achieve results." The call from the nation's most powerful businessman followed a meeting of Ukrainian "oligarchs" in Kiev at which scenarios for the future were discussed without any politicians present.
On Saturday evening, the presidential website quoted Justice Minister Olena Lukash, whom Yanukovych had asked to negotiate on his behalf, as saying that two opposition leaders had been invited to join the government. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of Ukraine's second-biggest parliamentary party, Batkivschina, was being offered the prime minister's job, and former world champion boxer Vitali Klitschko was invited as "deputy prime minister for humanitarian matters." Protesters in Kiev's main square met the proposal with derision. Yatsenyuk was quick to point out that the opposition wanted more than portfolios. "No deal," he tweeted. "We're finishing what we started."
The protesters' demands include an immediate amnesty for everyone arrested during the disturbances and a constitutional reform that would transfer some of the president's powers to the parliament. Klitschko, not particularly tempted by the chance to become Ukraine's "humanitarian" czar, wants an early presidential election. Even before the protests began, polls showed that Klitschko could beat Yanukovych in a runoff vote.
Further complicating the situation, the opposition leaders in parliament do not control the people assembled in Kiev, not to mention other regions. While the politicians were discussing compromise, a group calling itself Spilna Sprava, or Common Cause, seized three ministry buildings in the center of the capital city, including the justice ministry. An infuriated Lukash threatened she would persuade Yanukovych to stop all talks and introduce a state of emergency unless protesters vacated the building. "If Lukash wants the justice ministry building, let them immediately set free all the captives," Spilna Sprava coordinator Oleksandr Danilyuk replied on Facebook. The protesters later left the building.
With no one firmly in control, rumors of an impending state of emergency or a major police operation are circulating in the battle-weary capital. The parliament plans to assemble Jan. 28 for an emergency session that may show just how much Yanukovych and his allies are willing to compromise. Whatever the maneuvering yields, the risks of further escalation, economic collapse and even the breakup of the country into a complacent East and a rebellious West will remain, pro-Kremlin Russian political analyst Alexei Chesnakov told the daily Vedomosti in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Western leaders may have missed their chance to intervene productively. There are more metaphorical crows and seagulls than doves circling over Kiev.
(Leonid Bershidsky is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.)
To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at firstname.lastname@example.org.