Ukraine's dangerous days ahead

  • 26 February 2014
  • From the section Europe
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Man cries near a memorial for killed protesters at Kiev's Independence Square (25 February 2014)
The mood remains sombre in Independence Square in the capital, Kiev

On Tuesday the crowds were still filing into Kiev's Independence Square and the surrounding streets where most of the killings took place. Many of them carried flowers to place at the scores of shrines.

They were a quiet, serious, absorbed crowd. There was no hint of celebration or victory. A mother took a picture of her two young daughters as they added to the piles of flowers.

No-one doubts that this is a historical moment for this nation of 46 million people. But the future remains very uncertain.

In Tuesday's afternoon chill, I watched an argument between two civil defence units that, for the moment, stand for law and order.

It was not serious, but it underlined the fragility of this upheaval and the need for a credible government.

Economic abyss

The opposition leaders have postponed the announcement of the new administration until late Wednesday or even Thursday. Already divisions are emerging between the leaders of the various opposition parties.

They are all acutely aware that their choice of ministers might be rejected by the protesters who still occupy Independence Square.

Deep suspicions remain of the political class. Those who have stood behind the barricades do not want a return of tainted politicians. The struggle has been too hard and the loss of life too great.

Interior of the private residence of Viktor Yanukovych near Kiev (24 February 2014)
Viktor Yanukovych's luxury estate near Kiev is remote from Ukraine's sinking economy

So the leaders plan to parade the proposed ministers on stage in the square, to gauge the crowd's approval.

For the moment power remains with the street. But the leaders in parliament also have to be inclusive and appoint ministers from the pro-Russian east and south, to convince people in those areas that they will not be excluded in the new Ukraine. The Russians have noted calls in western Ukraine to ban the Russian language.

All the time the economy is sinking. Interim President Olexander Turchynov has said the country is looking into an economic abyss.

EU officials are privately alarmed by what they are hearing. Ukrainian officials say they need 25bn euros (£20.5bn) over the next two years. But they urgently need some short-term funding this week - several billion euros.

Public sector salaries have to be paid and gas payments made to Russia and debts repaid. EU officials have been warned there is a risk of Ukraine defaulting.

Although the EU has spoken of helping bridge short-term financial needs, there are no figures on the table. Both the US and EU are very cautious about shouldering the financial burden of Ukraine.

On both sides of the Atlantic politicians will face voters sceptical about pouring funds into Kiev.

Threat of separatism

But, certainly, the EU will feel an obligation to help the new government in Ukraine.

On Tuesday the EU's Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn said Europe "stands ready to provide substantial financial assistance", but first they will need a credible government in place and a commitment to reforms.

The talk is of calling a donors' conference within the next few weeks.

But time is short. Ukraine is dependent on Russian gas for its energy needs.

Pro-Russian activists in Crimea (23 February 2014)
Pro-Russian activists have been forming local self-defence groups in the Crimean port city Sevastopol

The Russian loan of 15bn euros is essentially frozen and Russian ministers have spoken of imposing tariffs on Ukrainian goods and perhaps demanding higher prices for natural gas. Russia, if it wants, can exert pressure where it will hurt most - on the Ukrainian economy.

Meanwhile the new leaders in parliament are warning that there is a "serious threat" of regions breaking away and the risk of clashes between protesters from Kiev and pro-Moscow groups in places like Crimea.

On the streets there is a huge desire for a cleansing of Ukrainian power structures. The old political class will not be accepted by the people. They want renewal.

President Viktor Yanukovych, with his ostrich farms and gold bath taps, has been ousted and the hated Berkut special police units have been disbanded. But the demand is to go much further, to root out endemic corruption.

So far the patience and discipline of the crowds has been impressive. There has been no looting. Even so, the country has little time to implement reforms; a weak economy makes its revolution vulnerable.