Street violence flared up in Ukraine last night as protesters battled police in defiance of new laws aimed at subduing anti-government demonstrations that started two months ago.
Officers used rubber bullets and water cannons in subzero temperatures as protesters hurled Molotov cocktails. The two sides exchanged smoke and sound bombs, with police vehicles burning nearby. More than 200 people were injured.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s opponents have held out on Kiev’s Independence Square as protests against his snub of a European Union co-operation deal got a boost from police crackdowns in November and December. Parliament passed laws last week to curb the protests, drawing rebukes from the EU and the U.S., which today blamed the government for the latest violence.
“They wanted to frighten people but they gathered again -- people showed their readiness to fight with the authorities, ignoring the laws,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in Kiev, said by phone. “There’s a radical mood and the authorities aren’t pleased. If they put more pressure on, there could be powerful resistance.”
The yield on Ukrainian government bonds due 2023 was unchanged at 8.32 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The cost to protect the country’s debt against non-payment for five years using credit-default swaps surged 13 basis points to 707, a one-month high.
The latest clashes began when protesters, who’d gathered on Independence Square for an eighth Sunday, tried to march on the parliament building about 500 meters (1,640 feet) away. People wearing orange helmets attacked buses used by police to block a street on the way, setting several on fire.
The violence ran through the night and sporadic clashes were continuing as of noon in Kiev, with activists throwing stones at police, who responded by firing rubber bullets.
More than 100,000 people turned out for yesterday’s rally, according to Ukrainian TV. The clashes are the first since Dec. 1, when at least 109 people were hospitalized. Police also invaded the protesters’ camp on Dec. 11 before withdrawing.
As of 6 a.m., 103 protesters had sought medical help and 42 were hospitalized, the Kiev City Council said. About 100 police officers were injured and 61 were hospitalized, according to the Interior Ministry, which said officers only deployed water cannons to put out fires.
Yanukovych sought to ease the unrest, saying last night in a statement on his website that he’d set up a commission to “resolve the political crisis.” The group will meet with the opposition today, he said.
Western politicians said the situation may persist as Yanukovych prepares to seek re-election next March, laying blame for the escalation with the authorities.
“I don’t see a short-term solution,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said today before a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels. “We probably won’t see one until the presidential election campaign draws on.”
The heightened tensions are a “direct consequence” of the government failing to acknowledge the “legitimate grievances” of its people, according to Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
“We urge the government of Ukraine to take steps that represent a better way forward for Ukraine, including repeal of the anti-democratic legislation signed into law in recent days and withdrawing the riot police from downtown Kiev,” she said in a statement posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy to Ukraine. The U.S will “continue to consider additional steps -- including sanctions -- in response to the use of violence.”
Yanukovych met yesterday with opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, who relayed protesters’ demands for snap elections.
“The nation’s temperature has reached a boiling point,” Klitschko, the former boxing world champion, said on Hromadske TV. “I told Yanukovych that the government’s dismissal and the president’s resignation are needed to resolve the crisis. Yanukovych pretended not to hear.”
Ukraine, a nation of 45 million people and a key Russian natural gas pipeline transit hub to the West, is struggling with its third recession since 2008 and dwindling foreign reserves. Yanukovych last month obtained a $15 billion Russian bailout and a cut in the price of imported natural gas, which further enraged pro-Western activists.
The latest clashes erupted after Pro-Yanukovych lawmakers passed legislation Jan. 16 to restrict protesters’ activities. Yanukovych signed the laws the next day, ignoring calls to veto them from international organizations and the opposition.
Under the new laws, people wearing masks or helmets during protests or erecting tents risk arrest and anyone blocking state buildings can be imprisoned for five years. Drivers of cars traveling in convoys of five or more face fines and confiscation of their driving licenses after activists arranged mass outings to the homes of officials including Yanukovych.
The Interior Ministry said on its website that it’s pursuing criminal proceedings linked to the public disorder, with protesters facing as long as 15 years in prison. Ten demonstrators were detained last night, it said.
The ministry warned activists that “all illegal actions are recorded by cameras,” saying protesters who break the law will bear administrative and criminal responsibility.
“The situation has escalated,” Fesenko said. “If they stop the escalation in the near future, if there’s some mediation, talks maybe start, it may still be possible to find some compromise. Otherwise, the country may be divided in two and force may be used.”