Even as protesters in the Ukraine are battling police on the streets of Kiev, they are also fighting amongst themselves over occupied buildings, turning their bludgeons and rubber bullets on each other.
Their confrontations are fueled, in part, by divisive political views—but the danger now is that the infighting will end up weakening the opposition, and inadvertently strengthening President Viktor Yanukovych’s hand.
Yesterday, in downtown Kiev, a large crowd gathered next to the Agricultural Policy Ministry. It included members from the right-wing “Svoboda” (Freedom) party and self-declared ‘Maidan self-defense’ members. The activists intended to take control of the building, which had been occupied since January 24th by a more radical wing of the protest movement, the “Spilna Sprava” (Common Business) civil movement.
In a video uploaded to YouTube, a young man, wearing a checkered keffiyeh over his face, said he was a Svoboda member. His party has 10 percent of the votes in Parliament, so it has some political leverage. The most recent verbal agreement with the Yanukovych government stipulated that activists detained by police will be set free if the protesters clear occupied buildings, according to Yury Syrotyuk, the head of the Svoboda party’s press office.
“We decided to clear the building, because it is a government institution and its occupation is an occasion for the state of emergency” said the young man.
As a parliamentary party, Svoboda tends to lean towards finding a compromise with Yanukovych and the police, in order to avoid the bloodshed that would be inevitable if a state of emergency were declared. In contrast, the Spilna Sprava protesters say their movement will settle for nothing less than the resignation of Ukraine’s parliament and its president. The movement’s leader, Olexander Danylyuk, is convinced that the negotiations with those in power are meaningless because the government does not intend to stick to its agreements. Therefore, the only acceptable tactic is to go on the attack. From the 24th to the 26th of January, Spilna Sprava activists occupied not only the Agricultural Policy Ministry, but also the Energy and Coal Industry Ministry and the Ministry of Justice. The occupation of this last building provoked the Minister of Justice, Olena Lukash, to express indignation and to threaten that if her office remained occupied, she would ask Yanukovych to declare a state of emergency.
The Svoboda protesters did manage to clear the three occupied ministries, but not without violence—at least three Spilna Sprava activists were injured by rubber bullets or live ammunition.
The very same evening, Yanukovych appeared in Parliament to persuade MPs from the majority to vote for a controversial new amnesty bill. The law decreed that all the arrested protesters will be released if activists vacate occupied buildings and roads in 15 days’ time. The president reportedly told the MPs that if they didn’t vote for the law, he would dissolve the parliament. This was a somewhat empty threat—the only reason that parliament can be legally dissolved is if the MPs fail to show up for work for a minimum of 30 days. Still, parliamentarians were nervous enough about his threat to vote on the bill. An alternative law proposed by the opposition, stipulating that all arrested protesters would be released with no supplementary conditions, was not even discussed.
As a result of the law, arrested protesters will be released only on certain conditions. This amounts to hostage-taking of the protesters. Since the end of December, more than 100 protesters, including teenagers, have been thrown in jail, with the real prospect of being sentenced to 15 years or more in prison. According to many reports, police even occasionally grabbed bystanders on the street and imprisoned them, as well. Police even arrested a Dutchman recently just because he owned a tire business. The authorities confiscated all his property, including 10,000 used tires. The investigator in charge of the case said that the protesters had burned his tires at the barricades, without giving additional proof. The judge concurred, “your tires are the proof.”
“The power which tries to trade imprisoned people for the administrative buildings is immoral,” said opposition MP Arsen Avakov in response to the law. The leader of another splinter opposition group, “Batkivshchyna,” (Motherland), said he was sure that the new law will intensify tensions in the society. This, to be sure, is the real aim of the new law. After all, the parliamentary members of the opposition are just intermediaries for the people occupying the Maidan and Grushevskogo Street.
Meanwhile, even as the Svoboda party helped clear the ministries, protesters occupied three additional buildings in Kiev—including the City Hall, the trade union building and the Ukrainian House. And eight administrative buildings in the Western Ukraine remain occupied by protesters. On Thursday morning, Yanukovych’s office announced the president had gone on sick leave with an unspecified respiratory ailment. For their part, the revolutionaries say they are not going to vacate any more buildings.