KYIV, Ukraine — Anti-government protesters are dug in. Opposition leaders spout calls to topple the country’s rulers. But leading officials remain defiant while Western diplomats warn of danger and plead for compromise.
An atmosphere of measured chaos continues to grip Ukraine’s capital as the two-week-long standoff between pro-European demonstrators and the government has become a protracted stalemate with no end in sight.
Although many here say the largest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution have passed the point of no return, few can forecast what comes next.
Political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko calls the situation “undefined.”
“There’s uncertainty about how both the authorities and opposition will act.”
Activists are hoping for a significant boost this weekend to the round-the-clock protests in Kyiv, where thousands have flooded central Independence Square each day this week.
They’re also hoping news that President Viktor Yanukovych held surprise talks on Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a strategic partnership will inflame the protests, whose chief aim has been to put Ukraine’s European integration back on track and snub Russia’s embrace.
So far, neither the authorities nor opposition leaders appear able — or willing — to make a bid to break the stalemate.
The opposition’s first attempt to force a political solution — seeking a vote of no-confidence in the government earlier this week — failed after Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions swatted it down in parliament.
That left few other political avenues open.
Although they have attempted to organize blockades of key government buildings, the heart of the protest remains Independence Square, where a revolutionary shantytown sustains the protests overnight.
Nominally, Ukraine’s three main opposition forces are calling for the cabinet’s removal and snap parliamentary and presidential elections.
But some experts suggest that after riding the tide of public discontent, they may now be hard-pressed to deliver on those demands.
“People on the streets are pressing the opposition,” says Taras Berezovets, a political consultant at Berta Communications. “They want everything now, and they don’t understand the language of compromise.”
That’s in stark contrast to the Orange Revolution, when hundreds of thousands rallied behind a single leader, former President Viktor Yushchenko, and a clear, legal cause: to overturn rigged elections.
Nevertheless, opposition figures say they’re prepared to push forward.
Andriy Shevchenko, a lawmaker from jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, says there is a “clear strategy” to pressure Yanukovych and force “a peaceful change of power.”
“What we see in the streets seems to be irreversible,” he said.
Not according to the authorities.
Yanukovych remained silent during his working visit to China this week, while his prime minister Mykola Azarov has alternated between chastising the protesters and vaguely hinting at the possibility of dialogue — but only if they clear the streets.
Although token attempts have been made to investigate vicious police violence that stunned demonstrators last weekend, officials also appear to be prosecuting protesters over riots outside the presidential administration on Sunday.
Fesenko says the opposition could force the administration to the negotiating table only if it manages to attract an unprecedented number of demonstrators to the square this weekend.
That’s not certain.
“The problem is that they are not ready for a compromise — they’re not even psychologically ready for discussions,” he adds.
The government’s defiance in recent days, amid growing calls to investigate police violence as well as for a wholesale change of government, suggests it doesn’t yet feel threatened by the mass protests.
But there are faint signs that support within Yanukovych’s Party, whose power base rests on big business in eastern Ukraine, is eroding. Several members have defected, citing disapproval with the party’s “anti-European course.”
Berezovets, the political consultant, says opposition leaders would do well to seek a dialogue with the influential tycoons who control the party’s purse strings and may feel slighted by Yanukovych’s consolidation of power within his own inner circle.
Their support may be the key to turning the tide, he adds.
“They need a guarantee from opposition leaders that in case Yanukovych loses power, their assets will be safe,” Berezovets says.
Pressure from Western leaders is also increasing, marked by recent visits to Independence Square by the Swedish and German foreign ministers, Carl Bildt and Guido Westerwelle, who urged both sides to restrain from provocations.
“I fear that forces wanting Ukraine to abandon the European road will not shy away from using violence,” Bildt said via Twitter on Friday. “Wisdom and leadership required by all.”
But the demonstrations have so far received markedly less support from abroad than the Orange Revolution, which enjoyed widespread approval from many Western leaders.
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The anger on the streets, meanwhile, remains palpable.
Anti-regime graffiti — both humorous and deeply offensive — has been scrawled on barricades and public property. Crowds on Independence Square and central streets erupt in thunderous chants of “Away with the gang!” and “Glory to Ukraine!”
Many ordinary protesters say their distaste for the authorities is only growing.
“I don’t respect them not only as politicians, but even as people,” said Ruslan Kurbanov, a university student from central Ukraine, shivering as he hoisted a Ukrainian flag into the frosty air.
“They are nonpersons.”