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Ukraine erupts

I’m not sure what to make of the deadly confrontations in Ukraine which have turned the center of Kiev into a hellish war zone.

At least 26 people– policemen as well as demonstrators– have died in the street battles.

Demonstrations began last year as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians expressed their justified anger over the government’s refusal to sign political and free-trade agreements with the European Union and its decision instead to establish closer ties with Russia.

But now there are disturbing reports like this:

One of the most controversial elements of the anti-government faction is Svoboda, an extreme right-wing political party that not only has representation in parliament, but has been dubbed by its critics as a neo-Nazi organization. Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that Svoboda has assumed a “leading role” in the street protests in Kiev, with affiliated paramilitary groups prominently involved in the disturbances. Svoboda flags and banners have been featured in the demonstrations at Kiev’s Independence Square. During the ongoing street riots, one Svoboda MP, Igor Myroshnychenko, created an iconic moment of sorts when he allegedly helped to topple the statue of Vladimir Lenin outside a government building which led to its occupation by protesters.

However, despite its extremist rhetoric, Svoboda is not a ‘fringe’ party – indeed, it currently occupies 36 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament, granting it status as the fourth largest party in the country. Further, Svoboda is linked to other far-right groups across Europe through its membership in the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes the British National Party (BNP) of the United Kingdom and Jobbik of Hungary. The leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, who has appeared at the Kiev protests, has a long history of making inflammatory anti-Semitic statements, including the accusation during a 2004 speech before parliament that Ukraine is controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” Miroshnychenko also called the Ukrainian-born American film actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.”

And of course the Russian government has blamed the violence on “connivance by Western politicians and European structures.”

Josh Marshall calls some of the horrifying pictures coming out of Kiev “Bruegelesque,” which seems about right.

Update: AP reports that Ukraine’s president and opposition leaders have agreed on a truce.

Further update: The truce has collapsed.

Additional update: A must-read piece about Ukraine by Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books.

Snyder notes that the Ukranian opposition includes people from all segments of the population, including Jews.

On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.

After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police, many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor). Young men, some of them from right-wing groups and others not, tried to take by force the public spaces claimed by the riot police. Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, or sotnia, to take the fight to the authorities.
…..
The protests in the Maidan, we are told again and again by Russian propaganda and by the Kremlin’s friends in Ukraine, mean the return of National Socialism to Europe. The Russian foreign minister, in Munich, lectured the Germans about their support of people who salute Hitler. The Russian media continually make the claim that the Ukrainians who protest are Nazis. Naturally, it is important to be attentive to the far right in Ukrainian politics and history. It is still a serious presence today, although less important than the far right in France, Austria, or the Netherlands. Yet it is the Ukrainian regime rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews. In other words, the Ukrainian government is telling itself that its opponents are Jews and us that its opponents are Nazis.

(Hat tip: gray)

Another update: The AP’s Yuras Karmanau reports from Kiev:

Three months of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych had turned into a bloody carnage on the Maidan, as the square is known.

When I walked out into the Maidan, clad in a helmet and a flak jacket, I saw bodies lying on the pavement. Ten in one place, another six a short walk away, five more farther away. The demonstrators were killed with precise shots to their heads or necks, the hallmarks of snipers.

People were gathering around the dead, many of them weeping. Some covered the bodies with Ukrainian flags, others brought Orthodox icons. A priest conducted a remembrance service.

I felt a bit sick. Many of the victims were only in their 30s and 40s, full of energy just a few hours ago.

I kept asking myself: Why are they killing them? The protesters had no firearms that I could see, and snipers could have instead incapacitated them by shooting their feet or arms.

If the government had hoped that the killings would intimidate protesters and force them to leave the Maidan, it was clearly a miscalculation. The carnage only fueled anger and strengthened the demonstrators’ determination.