The biggest nation in Eastern Europe is rapidly sliding into anarchy as the world watches from the sidelines. In Kiev, Ukraine, political activists are disappearing, journalists are being shot at and government-paid thugs are hunting down protesters.
Events escalated after the Ukrainian parliament, seeking to end protests over the government’s decision to scuttle an association pact with the European Union, passed a set of harsh laws last week clamping down on the freedoms of speech and assembly. The draconian measures enraged a motley crew of soccer fans and right-wing militants, who engaged in a sustained battle with police attempting to bar entry to the government quarter. The police used tear gas, rubber bullets and noise grenades, sometimes tying stones to the latter to inflict more damage. Rioters countered with sticks and makeshift shields, and before too long with real shields seized from the police. Both sides threw Molotov cocktails and stones.
Eyewitnesses said that police seemed to be intentionally shooting at cameramen and photographers. No exception was made for pro-government publications and TV channels: The goal appeared to be to prevent footage of the fighting from finding an audience. Some journalists nevertheless managed to document the street war.
It was only a matter of time before someone got killed. On Jan. 22, riot police fatally shot two protesters, Sergei Nigoyan and Mikhail Zhiznevsky, on Grushevsky street in downtown Kiev. The body of one well-known activist, Yuri Verbitsky, was found dead in the woods outside the capital. He and a colleague, Igor Lutsenko, had been taken to the woods from a Kiev hospital as part of a broader action in which police and plain-clothed thugs rounded up wounded rioters. Lutsenko, who says he was severely beaten, made his way back to the city. Police say Verbitsky died from exposure, not from the obvious injuries found on his body.
Normally a safe, friendly city, Kiev is now terrorized by groups of thugs, who freely admit they are being paid about $25 a night to scare and beat people who look like protesters.
It’s hard to imagine all this happening in a 21st century European city. The Western reaction? A few angry statements from U.S. senators and concerned noises from EU bureaucrats. Yanukovych, known to be free with his promises, told European Commission President Manuel Barroso that he would not introduce a state of emergency. Even without this formality, the Ukrainian capital is a city at war. I have seen angry townspeople wearing motorcycle and bicycle helmets carrying tires to the site of the clashes to build stinking bonfires, which have submerged the area in a gray fog.
From a purely financial perspective, Putin should be unhappy with Yanukovich. Russia has pledged $15 billion, $3 billion of which it has already spent on Ukrainian bonds, to bring the government back from the brink of default and calm the political situation. Yet Yanukovich has only further provoked the protesters and threatened Ukraine’s solvency, spending the money to shore up his support by paying the salaries and pensions of poverty-stricken public sector workers, troops and police. Nonetheless, the Russian government is preparing to release another $2 billion to Ukraine this month.
In a column for the Moscow daily Vedomosti, Vladimir Fedorin, former editor of Forbes Ukraine, speculated that Yanukovych would try to quash the protests by Feb. 7, when the Sochi Winter Olympics are due to open. “That wouldn’t be a bad gift for his Moscow patron,” Fedorin wrote. “The man who, with his Ukrainian colleague, bears responsibility for turning peaceful political protest into a street war, will have to answer a lot of questions from Western leaders who do not pass on going to Sochi.”
That is something of an idealistic view. The West does not care enough about what is going on in Ukraine to engage Putin, who has laid claim to the country by financing a rogue, oppressive regime.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor.
© 2014, Bloomberg News