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Ukraine Activists Roam Kiev as Russia Warns of Escalation

Ukrainian opposition activists build a barricade with a burned bus after violent clashes in central Kiev, on Jan. 21, 2014. Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images
Ukrainian opposition activists build a barricade with a burned bus after violent clashes in central Kiev, on Jan. 21, 2014. Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of Ukrainian anti-government protesters roamed the streets of Kiev after a second night of violence as Russia warned the political crisis could spiral beyond its neighbor’s control.

Demonstrators stared down lines of riot police amid sub-zero temperatures in the capital after hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks in the night. A makeshift wooden catapult was dismantled by police, who fired rubber bullets and smoke bombs. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged dialog, saying the situation is “on the brink of spinning out of control.”

President Viktor Yanukovych’s opponents have held out on Kiev’s Independence Square as rallies against his snub of a European Union cooperation deal were stoked by police crackdowns. Two months of protests demanding snap elections intensified Jan. 19, when a rally turned violent over laws passed three days earlier to restrict protests. Police vehicles were set alight and more than 200 people were injured.

“Until this point, the Ukrainian protests have been impressive by the discipline of the protesters and their very systematic refusal to use violence,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters in Berlin today. “That has been broken and I stress by a minority.”

Yields Jump

The yield on Ukrainian government bonds due 2023 rose 19 basis points to 8.56 percent as of 8 p.m. in Kiev, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The cost to protect the nation’s debt against non-payment using five-year credit-default swaps increased by 35 basis points to 720.

After two nights of battles between activists and police, Vitali Klitschko, who leads the opposition UDAR party, said a planned meeting with Yanukovych didn’t take place today. The ex-heavyweight boxer said he left after being greeted by Security Council head Andriy Klyuyev, who said the president would call when he’s free, according to a statement on the UDAR website.

Klitschko joined a meeting of the government working group to resolve the political crisis, according to a statement on the presidential website. Yanukovych was discussing the economy with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who’s scheduled to attend this week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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.

Hundreds Injured

More than 100,000 people attended the Jan. 19 rally, local TV reported. About 2,000 were on Independence Square yesterday, while another 6,000 were on Hrushevskogo Street near parliament, the hub of the violence, the UNIAN and RBC news services said. Police said about 500 people were attacking them on that street, where protesters built barricades using burned-out buses.

Police have detained 32 protesters, while about 1,400 have sought medical help since the first night of clashes, the Interfax news service reported. The Interior Ministry said 119 police officers were injured and 80 hospitalized.

The opposition has called a rally for tomorrow at 6 p.m.

Last week’s legislation, which come into force at midnight, was the “main trigger” for the violence, Otilia Dhand, vice president at Teneo Intelligence, said yesterday in a note. “A more radicalized group of protesters now calls ’to act rather than talk’ and this new attitude increases the likelihood of further clashes in the coming days.”

New Rules

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 EU said yesterday in a statement that the laws “would significantly restrict the Ukrainian citizens’ fundamental rights of association, media and the press,” calling on the authorities “to ensure that these developments are reversed.” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule will make a two-day visit to Kiev on Jan. 24 to discuss the recent developments.

While Yanukovych said yesterday that he understood why people had taken to the streets, he pledged to use “all legal means” to quell the unrest. Justice Minister Olena Lukash today called the protests “extremist,” pledging “inevitable punishment” for lawbreakers.

Violent Confrontations

Ukraine must do everything to avoid “violent confrontations,” Azarov told Russia’s Vesti 24 TV channel today. Even so, if the unrest doesn’t end, the authorities will have to use force, 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.

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.”

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.

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