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Ukraine opposition struggles after Russia deal
Agence France Presse
An Ukrainian pro-EU demonstrator wearing a street performer's outfit warms himself near a fire burning in a steel drum, during a gathering of pro-European integration protesters in central Kiev December 23, 2013.  (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
An Ukrainian pro-EU demonstrator wearing a street performer's outfit warms himself near a fire burning in a steel drum, during a gathering of pro-European integration protesters in central Kiev December 23, 2013. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
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KIEV: Ukraine’s opposition is in disarray after failing to offer a clear agenda to their supporters in response to the signing by President Viktor Yanukovych of a bailout deal with Russia, analysts say.

While the protests against the authorities’ decision to scrap an integration pact with the EU under Kremlin pressure have continued in the streets of Kiev, opposition leaders appear unable to harness this support effectively. Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to buy $15 billion of Ukraine’s debt in eurobonds and slash its gas bill by a third to preserve Kremlin influence in its neighbor.

Tens of thousands rallied Sunday for the latest major weekend protest against Yanukovych but the turnout was the lowest since the mass protests started on Nov. 24.

“It is clear that Yanukovych has retained his standing and received an additional resource in the form of the deal with Russia,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta political research center.

The protesters have occupied Independence Square – known in Kiev as the Maidan – since late November and erected barricades to prevent security forces from entering the area.

Several police attempts to shift the protest camp ended in failure and provoked outrage inside and outside Ukraine over the use of force against peaceful protesters.

While it seemed in early December that Yanukovych might not be able to withstand the protests, the Moscow deal could be a turning point as the authorities seek to gain the upper hand.

The three main opposition leaders – world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko; Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the faction of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko; and nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok – have appeared at a loss over how to respond.

The three were taken aback by the lack of concessions offered in public by Yanukovych to the Kremlin for the help, a move that would have provided them with a weapon to mobilize supporters.

“There is no leader, no personification of the Maidan,” said Ukrainian political analyst Vadym Karasev, adding the trio were also riven by internal divisions.

Their demands to punish policemen who beat up students during an early bid to disperse the protests on Nov. 30 and the resignation of the current government are still unanswered.

“Only Klitschko wants early presidential elections, but there is no support from others,” Karasev said, adding that each of the three opposition leaders had presidential ambitions with no desire to yield to the others.

Having missed the chance to shake Yanukovych from his perch, each of the opposition leaders may have already begun his campaign for the next presidential polls to be held in March 2015.

Experts believe that the opposition should have been more convincing in its closed-door talks with Ukraine’s oligarchs, who control a lot of pro-government members of parliament.

Despite the annoyance of pickets outside their apartments and offices both in Ukraine and abroad, the Moscow agreements show that the country’s super rich are still behind Yanukovych for now.

“The backstage struggle failed. It was necessary to seek allies in parliament, among the oligarchs, but it was not done,” Karasev said.

An expected flood of defections from MPs in Yanukovych’s Regions Party never happened.

Another big problem is the lack among the opposition trio of an obvious leader such as the jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a feisty icon of the 2004 Orange Revolution whose detention supporters say is aimed at eliminating her from politics.

“There is no charismatic leader, no counterweight to Yanukovych,” Karasev said.

The leader of the anti-Communist protest movement in the 1980s and former Polish President Lech Walesa told Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita that he did not “see a major social movement that would overthrow the government.”

Experts say the opposition should prepare for long-term actions. But Tymoshenko has urged them not to waste the Maidan’s protest energy by waiting for the 2015 polls to change the president.

She was echoed by a former emergencies minister in her Cabinet, Viktor Baloga, who called on the opposition “to prevent a loss of tempo” and to prepare an action plan for the near future.

“If this goes on, 2015 will not come. It’s about saving the country where we live,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 10.
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