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Political chill in Kiev will bring winter of discontent

IT'S cold in Kiev right now.

The freezing winter that has gripped the Ukrainian capital is matched only in its intensity by the political crisis that has seen protesters occupy the city's Independence Square for the last three weeks.

The trigger for all this rancour that has given rise to clashes between the country's authorities and demonstrators is, of course, the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to put the kibosh on a far-reaching partnership deal with the EU. This, despite years of negotiations aimed at integrating Ukraine with the 28-nation bloc.

The people, it seems, are none too pleased with Mr Yanukovich's U-turn announced on November 21 and have taken to the barricades to vent their disapproval in scenes reminiscent of Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004/05.

Back then Mr Yanukovich was also the focus of the people's ire when the results of a run-off vote in the presidential election between leading candidates Viktor Yushchenko and him were said to be rigged by the authorities in favour of the latter.

Yesterday in what appeared to be yet another U-turn, Mr Yanukovich insisted he still "intends to sign" the EU co-operation agreement he rejected only last month. Should this happen it will no doubt leave a few political noses out of joint in Moscow. There, yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was still trying to woo Mr Yanukovich into a Moscow-led customs union that would reinforce Ukraine's significant trade links with Russia.

Those trade links of course include a long-running dispute with Moscow over the cost of Russian gas on which Ukraine is heavily reliant. Ukrainian firms too - especially in the country's Russian-speaking east - also rely heavily on sales to Russia.

And so Mr Yanukovich find himself being pulled in two different directions at once, Moscow on the one side and EU and other Western diplomats on the other.

While Mr Yanukovich's dithering over the EU deal acted as trigger for the current protests in Kiev, what any analysis of the situation needs to recognise is the other underlying and much more deeply rooted political reasons for the latest unrest.

To begin with, much of the anger behind these mass protests is fuelled by perceptions of political corruption and the alleged close links between the Ukrainian government and its mega-rich oligarchs.

According to an investigation by openDemocracy, a respected international affairs website, Mr Yanukovich's private residence Mezhyhirya, an enormous wooden mansion, is estimated to have cost between £45 million and £60m, even though his official salary for most of his political career has never exceeded £1200 a month.

There is evidence, too, that a road built connecting Kiev to this residence was constructed for Mr Yanukovich's personal benefit out of money that originated in Ukraine's exchequer and was slated for use for the Euro 2012 football tournament.

That such extravagant indulgence should occur while much of the country teeters on bankruptcy has only further fuelled the anger of many Ukrainians and led to the involvement of all three of the country's parliamentary opposition movements in the current protests.

Moscow, of course, is watching all of this very carefully indeed. Among the Russians' biggest concerns is the fact two of the three most popular opposition leaders have strong ties with Western Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

Vitali Klitschko, the world heavyweight boxing champion and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, has deep ties to Germany, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, parliamentary leader of the country's second biggest party, also runs a foundation, Open Ukraine, that also has German partners and lists among its American partners the US State Department and prominent NGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy.

Mr Yatsenyuk notably is also an ally of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in jail, who is an arch-rival of President Yanukovich and whose continued imprisonment amidst ill health has contributed to much tension between Kiev and the West.

Ms Tymoshenko, whose trial many believe to have been politically motivated by the Yanukovich regime, has become a cause celebre in the EU. So much so in fact that the EU set her release as a key condition for signing its co-operation agreement with Ukraine.

All the time, Moscow is closely monitoring these links between prominent opposition leaders and Western political organisations

The Russian government has long accused such NGOs of meddling in others' domestic affairs, including the "colour revolutions" in Ukraine in 2004, Georgia in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005.

The simple fact remains Ukraine is a vital strategic asset to Russian defensibility and security. Faced with the unrest in Kiev, Moscow has been surprisingly reticent so far but the signs are that Mr Putin will not remain that way.

He knows all too well many Ukrainians see the current issue of greater EU cooperation as a means to confront Moscow's influence. Among many Ukrainians there is a genuine fear President Yanukovich is little more than Putin puppet, a Kremlin asset who all too easily would succumb to the undertow of a Moscow political class ruling in the old Soviet way.

It is this Russian "threat" and what Ukrainians see as the corruption of their own politicians that has taken so many of them on to Kiev's winter streets and barricades.

Yesterday, as a Ukrainian delegation headed for Brussels to seek crucial EU and International Monetary Fund aid, Mr Putin reiterated his warning Moscow might respond to any EU deal by way of economic sanctions against Ukraine.

In Kiev, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered again, rebuilding barricades torn down by police. According to citizens' protest groups, thousands more people from western Ukraine were streaming into the snowbound capital for the weekend to boost the 10,000 or so crammed on to Independence Square. The political chill remains and this stand-off, the outcome of which is sure to shape Ukraine's future, is far from over yet.

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