Main Event

Ukraine Government and Opposition Clash, in Munich

The struggle for the future of Ukraine played out on the world stage Saturday when the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko battled during a heated session at the Munich Security Conference.

Leonid Kozhara, the acting head of the Ukrainian government’s foreign ministry, defended the government’s handling of two months of protests that have roiled the capital of Kiev and resulted in deaths, kidnappings, and the arrest of hundreds of activists. The opposition is calling for President Victor Yanukovych to repeal laws restricing dissent, reverse his decision to enter a trade association with Russia, dissolve the current government, amend the constitution, and call early elections.

At different times during the Munich session, Kozhara railed against "terrorism" and "Nazis," denying that Ukraine's government was guilty of mistreating protesters. He defended the government's decision abondon trade talks with the European Uion in favor of the deal with Moscow.

“It was not an easy but right decision. What we have right now is a very attractive offer from Russia,” he said, referring to a favorable price Russia gave Ukraine for energy and a $15 billion loan Moscow threw in to sweeten the deal. “Not all Ukraine supports the Maidan,” he said, referring to the Kiev square that protesters have occupied.

Klitschko, the Party Chairman of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, made an appeal to the hundreds of senior officials, lawmakers, and experts gathered in Munich for support of the opposition’s desire for democratic reforms and international oversight of alleged human rights abuses by the Ukranian regime.

Klitchko said that the people had shown their resistance to repression and their commitment to European values and political and economic reforms over the past two months of protests. He rejected Yanukovich’s assertion that the opposition was leading Ukraine down a path of terrorism and violence.

“Mr. Yanukovich, Ukrainians ask you if this is the right path. It is the path for rights for our people? Let me say as a Ukrainian citizen, this is not an acceptable path for us,” he said. “For two months, the people of Ukraine have showed their will for political change… and pressure on Yanukovich is rising.”

The highest drama in the session came when Klitschko interrupted the session to collect and then distribute an album of photos documenting violence against protesters by the Ukrainian police.

Kozhara said that opposition elements included “extremist groups” displaying “Nazi style emblems” and attacking the police with Molotov cocktails.

“If you want to talk about Molotov cocktails, I can talk about repression,” Klitschko responded. “I’m happy to present a photo album with pictures. I will show you personally and the entire audience what you say is not true… If you want to see the pictures I am happy to present them right now.”

Klitschko then walked off the stage to collect several copies of the album and presented them to the foreign minister, the other panelists, and several members of the audience. The foreign minister seemed to peruse the album for a few minutes before setting it aside. Klitschko held up the album for the rest of the session as the foreign minister talked.

“The people have said enough. Enough corruption, enough living without laws, enough of this system,” Klitschko said. “The people, with this system, they don’t see the future.”

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Russia had a representative on the panel as well. Leonid Slutsky, Chairman of the State Duma Committee on the Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Integration and Compatriot Relationships, used his speaking time to criticize the U.S. and western officials for supporting the protesters and accused the West of inciting the violence in the first place.

“Crowds of top level politicians in the West, Senator [John] McCain, [Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria] Nuland, who distributed biscuits in Ukraine, dozens of other politicians who visited the Maidan… it is those politicians and not Russia who exercised unprecedented pressure on Ukraine,” he said. “It is these politicians who are responsible for games of the opposition because they called for mass protests which escalated into riots and pogroms that got out of hand and were not controlled by the opposition itself.”

Secretary of State John Kerry expressed U.S. support for the Ukrainian opposition and protest movement earlier Saturday in remarks to the conference.

“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic European future more important today than in Ukraine. While there are unsavory elements in the streets in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe and a prosperous country, and they are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations,” he said. “The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.”