As Ukraine's antigovernment revolt spreads like wildfire around the country, a senior official has for the first time threatened to call a state of emergency – which could bring the army onto the streets of Kiev and other strife-plagued cities.
Ukrainian Justice Minister Olena Lukash, who woke up Monday morning to find her downtown Kiev ministry occupied by protesters, said in a televised statement, "If the protesters do not leave the Justice Ministry building.... I will ask the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to impose a state of emergency." She complained that an opposition-led mob had forced its way into the building overnight, using bats to smash windows, and that water sprayed during the melee had turned the ministry into "a veritable ice-skating rink."
It's the fourth major government building to be occupied in Kiev, while protesters around the more nationalist-minded west of the country have taken over administration buildings and even forced out Kiev-appointed governors in several regions. In recent days the unrest has even spread to Ukraine's eastern provinces, which were formerly considered to be bastions of pro-government sentiment.
Ukraine's ruling Party of Regions, whose leader is embattled President Viktor Yanukovych, warned Monday that the situation has spun out of control, and that "fascist youths" are trying to stage an "anti-constitutional" coup d'état. The party, which holds a narrow majority in parliament, accused protest leaders of inciting street violence in an effort to overturn a democratically elected president and constitutionally legitimate government.
"The very existence of the independent Ukraine is in jeopardy now. Trying to carry out a coup, which will divide the country, they are not thinking about the life and future of millions of peaceful citizens who are not involved in this chaos," the party's statement says.
Over the weekend Mr. Yanukovych attempted to co-opt the moderate leaders of the protest movement – especially the leader of the liberal UDAR party, boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko and the chairman of the Fatherland association, Arseny Yatseniuk – by offering them top positions in a newly reshuffled government.
So far the opposition leaders have resisted the offer, saying that their key demands have not yet been met.
"This was a poisoned offer from Yanukovych, designed to divide our demonstrators' movement," Mr. Klitschko, who was offered the post of deputy prime minister, told German Sunday paper Bild am Sonntag yesterday. "We will continue to negotiate and are still demanding early elections."
Opposition leaders want the government's resignation, repeal of draconian antiprotest laws passed by parliament two weeks ago, early presidential and parliamentary elections, and a full amnesty for all protesters who have been arrested by police over the past two turbulent months.
Mr. Yatseniuk, who would become prime minister under the president's offer, told journalists that he is awaiting the outcome of an emergency session of the Supreme Rada [parliament], which is slated for Tuesday.
"Tuesday is the judgment day; we believe not a single [one] of their words. We believe only actions and result," Yatseniuk is quoted as saying.
But some experts warn that moderate opposition leaders may have completely lost control over the more radical elements of the protest movement, which have spurned calls for a truce during negotiations with the government and continue to build barricades, occupy government buildings, and otherwise prepare for more violent confrontations with police.
"The president has already agreed to the government's resignation, and giving top posts to the leaders of the opposition. The fact that they haven't answered is really strange, since this was their principal demand" just a few days ago, says Dmitro Vydrin, a former government adviser and independent political expert. He suggests that opposition leaders are afraid, or incapable of reining in the most radical elements, who are now driving events in the streets.
On Monday, Klitschko attempted to convince radicals of the radical Spilna Sprava, or Right Deed, movement to vacate the freshly occupied Justice Ministry. According to Russian media, the protesters rejected his entreaties.
Spilna Sprava did leave the ministry later, saying they did not want to provoke authorities, but warned they could return depending on the outcome of Tuesday's parliamentary session.
"Ukraine is now facing the very real threat of civil war," says Valery Kamchatny, a former Rada deputy and independent political expert. "Even if the government does introduce a state of emergency, half of the country is already de facto beyond government control. And there is no guarantee the army would obey orders to intervene. The army has no motivation to defend the present authorities; I've talked with military people who absolutely rule that out."
On Monday Ukraine's Defense Minister, Pavlo Lebedev, issued a statement saying that any military role in Ukraine's internal strife would be "impossible."
"The army will strictly follow the Constitution and the laws of Ukraine, which clearly specify its role, functions and tasks," Mr. Lebedev said.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin analyst who has been a frequent adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past, accuses European and US politicians of being partly to blame for the unrest because they have encouraged protesters to act as though they are confronting a dictatorship rather than a democratically elected government. He says Western leaders should tell Ukrainian opposition politicians to renounce street violence and return to constitutional political methods – fresh presidential elections are slated for 2015.
"The principal reason for this crisis is the weakness of the Ukrainian state," he says. Far from being the tough dictatorship it is depicted as in the West, the Yanukovych government has shown itself to be incapable of enforcing elementary civil order, or in negotiating stable relationships with its main neighbors, Russia and the European Union.
"This government is simply not able to stop the kind of provocations and violent attacks that would be dealt with severely in any Western country. Leaders of the EU and the US should stop encouraging this, just because they think they're blocking Russia's geopolitical interests, and realize what this is leading to. Russia and the EU urgently need to put aside differences, and cooperate to help Ukraine return to the path of legal, constitutional order. Otherwise, I fear very bloody events are in the offing."