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You're reading: Anton Symkovych: Why has a peaceful protest in Ukraine turned into violent clashes?

The most probable
explanation of what had triggered the violent clashes is Yanukovych’s
continuous dismissal of the protesters’ demands, rather modest initially, and his
brutal crackdown of the protest – from cruel dispersals of peaceful rallies, to
the passage of Stalinist laws, to the use of paid goons to attack protesters
and intimidate citizens with the clear connivance of the police. Furthermore, the
inability of the opposition troika – Arseniy Yatseniuk, Vitali Klitschko and
Oleh Tyahnybok – to feel public sentiment, to respond to the gravity of the
situation, and to appoint one leader responsible for coordinating the protest
and acting as a guarantor for expected defectors from the Yanukovych’s camp led
a crowd to leave the main square and move towards the parliament building where
clashes with riot police erupted along the way. The failure of the European
Union and the U.S. to introduce effective sanctions against Ukrainian officials
responsible for the violent dispersal of a mostly student rally on Nov. 30 and
the ineffectiveness of their condemnation and warnings has also added to
popular frustration.

However, to understand
the eruption of violence one must realize that the Ukrainian police have long
lost their legitimacy, and are passionately hated by many for their corruption
and brutality. It is well documented by human rights organizations and
international monitoring bodies that, on average, twenty to forty persons,
young and old, die in police stations every year in Ukraine. Further, illegal
use of force is commonplace. Police brutality and impunity from investigation
and prosecution have become routine. Outbreaks of public rage and protest
against the police are regular in Ukraine. Last
year the rape of a woman by two police officers led to a riot and the
ransacking of a police station by an angry crowd. The Ukrainian police are
notoriously ineffective at combating crime and surveys show that it is often unreported
due to lack of public confidence in the law-enforcement agencies and from fear
of becoming a victim of police misconduct. These conditions lead to people
joining the police so that they can exhort bribes rather than serve the public.
Many are prepared to torture citizens since a culture of abuse characterizes
the Ukrainian law-enforcement agencies. The police are hated and feared. The
law in Ukraine is a means of oppression, not a regulator of social relations.
The rule by law versus the rule of law means that the judicial system is the
least trusted public institution in Ukraine. Surveys by Transparency
International illustrate this year after year. This explains why the unrest in
Kyiv is not unrestrained, and Molotov cocktails have been targeting the police
cordons; there is practically no looting. Women, including the famous Kyiv
babushkas, have been seen filling bottles for Molotov cocktails and splitting
cobble stones to be thrown at the police. It is both men and women, young and
old, who pack sacks with snow and stones to reconstruct damaged
barricades.  Whilst it is very probable
that the violence was started by impatient youth, it is clear that people, who
in normal life work in offices and run small businesses, recently found
themselves engaged in full-scale violence.

The violence continued
because Yanukovych’s response was to escalate the conflict. He is well aware
that images of policemen on fire and a violent mob throwing cobble stones lend
legitimacy to a crackdown on the protest. His prime minister continued to
incite popular rage by making slanderous and provocative statements. The police
illegally used water cannons in freezing temperatures, threw stones back at the
protesters, and stripped naked captured protesters, humiliated and beat them
up. The videos of such degrading treatment went viral on the Internet. The
police attacked a field hospital while volunteer doctors were performing
surgery on wounded protesters. The doctors were shot with rubber bullets and
equipment was destroyed and stolen, the Red Cross flag was removed by riot
police. Many journalists had to take off their bright ‘Press’ vests as it
appeared that police snipers were targeting their faces and cameras with their
bullets; already more than forty had to seek medical treatment.  

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