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Crisis on the streets of Kiev as an uneasy mood lingers

Before yesterday's farcical events in Ukraine which saw President Viktor Yanukovich abandon the capital Kiev it was difficult to tell if the crisis was the final act in the old Cold War or the beginning of a new confrontation between the existing government and reformers demanding change.

It was certainly a bloody business, creating scenes which could have come out of Syria or any of the world's other recent trouble-spots. During the fighting between security forces and protestors in the capital Kiev at least 75 people have been killed, including 13 policemen and more than 1100 others have been injured.

At the height of the violence tear gas and live ammunition were used, government buildings were torched and the predominant feeling on the street was that Yanukovich's administration was in free fall. By midday yesterday the city centre was largely deserted with government buildings under the control of vigilantes and an uneasy mood was in place as parliament continued to sit to confirm the election of a new Speaker. Although a hasty ceasefire and truce had been cobbled together on Friday this seems to have evaporated as once again the country teeters on the verge of outright civil war.

With rumours abounding that Yanukovich had pulled out of his compound in Kiev to take up residence in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city and his political base in the east of the country, it was not difficult to believe that battle lines were being drawn up for further confrontation between the protestors and Yanukovich's administration. To draw comparisons with other recent populist uprisings in Damascus or Cairo all that was missing was the sight of tanks on the streets.

The trouble had been simmering in Ukraine since the end of last year after Yanukovich arbitrarily broke off negotiations with the EU and opted to strengthen the country's ties with Russia. Initially the protests were peaceful but the president's decision revealed fracture lines within the country, with the people in the west favouring closer links with the EU, while the Russian-speaking east and Crimea in the south supported the creation of a new union with Russia which has been mooted by President Vladimir Putin.

To sweeten the deal the Russians offered Ukraine a loan of US$15 billion and at the same time suggested that Yanukovich had to get tough with his political opposition. With the EU and the US threatening to interfere with the use of sanctions the tension inside the country was suddenly in danger of becoming a wider confrontation, sparking memories of earlier crises during the Cold War in Hungary (1956) and former Czechoslovakia (1968).

That mood was intensified on February 18 when the first demonstrations took place in Kiev as parliament met to debate opposition demands for a new constitution and reforms of the government.

Billed as a "peace offensive" the protestors, many of them students, attempted to keep within the law but the sheer weight of numbers and the presence of police barricades quickly sparked violence with the focus becoming the main square or Maidan (quickly renamed the Euromaidan).

In scenes which are drearily familiar passions escalated and the fighting became more ferocious with the use of lethal weapons as protestors and security forces clashed in full view of watching television cameras. Snipers from the security forces went into action around the Euromaidan and the presence of police provocateurs known as "titushky" simply exacerbated the situation in the square.

As the fighting escalated last Thursday the centre of Kiev resembled a battleground. Main opposition leader Vitali Klitschko attempted in vain to broker a ceasefire with the government. Yanukovich's response was to paint the protestors as criminals or terrorists intent only on creating anarchy.

"Separate yourself from the radical elements that seek bloodshed and conflict with law enforcement agencies," he announced in a television broadcast to the nation, adding a warning that "the opposition leaders have ignored the basic foundation of democracy, the line had been crossed when they called people to arms".

Behind the scenes both the EU and the US attempted to intervene on the diplomatic front but their efforts amounted only to placing restrictions on visas and freezing economic assets.

On Friday the governments of France, Germany and Poland also attempted to intervene by persuading Yanukovich to hold early elections. All three countries have historic links with Ukraine but with the political situation in Kiev in chaos and the Ukrainian parliament in emergency session it proved difficult to reach a consensus with all parties and a compromise deal signed late in the day looked tenuous at best.

At its heart is an agreement to curb the president's powers, form a caretaker government and hold early elections but with the country still in disarray and a power vacuum existing in the capital no one believes that a successful outcome is imminent.

The only decision that won the approval of the protestors in the Euromaidan yesterday was a demand for a change in Ukraine's law that lead to the quick release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Not only is she a well-liked figure but her supporters have always believed that her trial and conviction were politically motivated.

In August 2011 the former prime minister and founder of the opposition Fatherland Party was sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzlement and abuse of power over a deal to purchase natural gas from Russia.

At this fraught stage in the crisis Tymoshenko's release from such a questionable sentence is both sensible and symbolic.

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