In Ukraine, stakes rise sharply as unrest spreads

A fragile truce remains in effect in the embattled Ukrainian capital of Kiev. But many are starting to question if the country can hold together.

Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP
Far from the violent protests in Kiev, western Ukrainians took over the regional governor's office in Lviv on Thursday, and forced the governor to write a letter of resignation.

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Antigovernment protesters in Kiev began strengthening barricades and seized a new government building early this morning after talks last night between opposition leaders and the Ukrainian president resulted in "not much."

The fragile truce installed yesterday during negotiations is still holding in Kiev. But protesters began expanding their camp in Independence Square and took over the Agricultural Ministry building without resistance after the talks failed to yield any concessions from the government. The negotiations followed an outbreak of violence on Wednesday that left at least two people dead and hundreds injured amid clashes between riot police and radical protesters.

The Associated Press (AP) reports that opposition leaders said the talks would continue, though they offered a mixed take on their progress. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the crowd that "there is a really good chance" of stopping the bloodshed, but boxing champion and Udar party leader Vitali Klitschko was decidedly more pessimistic.

"The only thing we were able to achieve was not much," a grim Klitschko told the crowd.

He urged protesters to refrain from violence and continue peaceful protests to avoid further bloodshed.

"I am afraid, yes, I am afraid of human losses," Klitschko said. "We will be widening the territory of the Maidan [square] further until these guys start reckoning with us."

Vladimir Paniotto, director of the Kiev Institute of Sociology, also expressed pessimism in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, though he suggested there was still hope for progress. "The process is unpredictable but unless there are substantial and ongoing talks, it will lead nowhere," he says. "I want to hope that a compromise will be reached. The opposition doesn't control radical elements now and it has no ability to control them. All this might have been prevented some time ago. Even now there are still chances."

Radio Free Europe reports that according to opposition leaders, Mr. Yanukovych promised that the government would release protesters detained by police and would halt further detentions. But Mr. Klitschko said Yanukovych also ignored one of the protesters' key demands: the resignation of the president and his government.

Klitschko called on protesters to "lay the pressure on so that the government resigns," RFE adds.

AP notes that Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko issued a statement guaranteeing that police would not take action against the Independence Square protesters, and called on police to exercise calm.

Protesters expressed their disappointment in the talks to Agence France-Presse, and indicated they were prepared for a fight with the government.

"I feel deceived. We waited all day for a result of the negotiations and we got nothing," said protester Yevgeny, 26, wearing a helmet.

"I have fear now but have even more fear for the future," he added.

Lyubov, a protester from Ivano-Frankivsk in west Ukraine who had travelled to Kiev, added: "We know the authorities do not want to compromise, we have known this for a long time."

Pavlo Movchan, parliamentary deputy with the BYuT party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, expressed hope that the parliament, which is scheduled to meet next Tuesday, will cancel draconian new antiprotest laws and agree to parliamentary elections – moves that could promote calm. But equally important, Mr. Movchan told the Monitor, is addressing the widespread opposition belief that Russia is behind the unrest.

"The authorities need to break with Russia; further escalation might continue for as long as Vladimiar Vladimirovich [Putin] needs it," he says. "We know that there are Russian Black Sea special forces taking part in beating the protesters."

Violence also spread on Thursday to western Ukraine. AP reports that protesters stormed several government offices, most notably in the second city and opposition stronghold of Lviv, where antigovernment demonstrators forced the Yanukovych-appointed regional governor to sign a resignation letter. The governor later denied the letter was valid, as it had been signed under duress.

Yanukovych also found himself under increasing pressure from Western powers to end the violence and roll back antiprotest laws his government implemented on Tuesday. The Wall Street Journal reports that European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and US Vice President Joe Biden both independently warned Yanukovych on Thursday of consequences to Ukraine's relationships with the EU and US if there were further bloodshed. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that she was "furious" over Ukraine's treatment of the Kiev protesters.

The sharp escalation in the protests and violence is prompting many observers to openly discuss what was once unthinkable: the breakup of Ukraine. 

"What we are seeing in Ukraine today is not a political crisis, or an East-West divide, but the collapse of the model of Ukrainian statehood that's existed since the end of the USSR," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "It can't go on as it has for two decades. It's clear there must be fundamental changes."

Talks are scheduled to continue today.

Fred Weir contributed reporting from Moscow.

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