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Analysis: Options narrow for Yanukovich as Kiev heaves with violence

A pro-European integration protester throws a Molotov cocktail towards riot police during clashes in Kiev January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily F
A pro-European integration protester throws a Molotov cocktail towards riot police during clashes in Kiev January 20, 2014. REUTERS/Vasily F

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV (Reuters) - At one end of Kiev's protest zone, just inside a makeshift barricade, protesters have set up a mock jail with an effigy of President Viktor Yanukovich sitting in a striped convict's tunic, his arms raised above him in manacles.

In the past few weeks as anti-government protests have grown in intensity, it has become a common spot for a Sunday outing. Parents send their children to pose for family album snapshots alongside the jail bird.

That Yanukovich could be brought down by the present spasm of street violence and face prosecution for his "crimes" in office might be wishful thinking by his most ardent opponents.

Despite two months of unrest after pulling out of a trade deal with the European Union and moving closer to Russia, there is nothing to suggest that the 63-year-old former construction worker is in danger of falling from power.

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday sounded a note of alarm when he admonished European governments for "interfering" in Ukraine's political crisis, a regular complaint of Moscow.

"The situation is spinning out of control," he said.

Yanukovich appears to be still in charge of the security forces who are still holding back from an all-out offensive against protesters. There have been no public defections from his camp and the super-wealthy "oligarchs" who bankroll him have not broken ranks.

But nonetheless his options are narrowing as street violence against his rule grows more intense following policy blunders - the latest being the passage of sweeping legislation that bans virtually any form of anti-government protest.

In the worst violence that anyone can remember in Kiev, radical protesters have been battling police day and night near the main government building, lobbing cobblestones, fireworks and sometimes petrol bombs, undeterred by the stun grenades and rubber bullets fired back at them.

Though a line of three priests kept the two sides apart on Tuesday in a temporary truce, it seemed only a question of time before violence resumed again.

With Ukraine in unchartered territory now, Yanukovich is running out of options to reclaim control of the streets peacefully, having turned his back on compromise and used the promise of talks with the opposition only to play for time, analysts say.

He might even declare a state of emergency backed by a curfew, some say.

"The authorities may be expecting - even accidentally - some deaths which would provide them with a pretext for escalating the conflict. It would be an excuse for decisive action," said independent analyst Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank.

Yanukovich took the unusual move on Sunday night of meeting Vitaly Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician who has now emerged as the leader of the opposition. The president later promised to set up talks with the opposition to settle the crisis.

But opposition figures dismissed these as an attempt to buy time and say they will believe Yanukovich's sincerity only when they see him personally at the negotiating table.

"This is Plan B - talks with partial concessions. This is aimed mainly for tactical reasons - to divert the focus of the opposition and drag things out. It's a support plan," Fesenko said.

On Tuesday, Klitschko said presidential aides turned him away from a second meeting with Yanukovich and he returned to the barricades where priests were overseeing a truce between police and protesters.

"He (Yanukovich) was in a meeting. I am surprised that this meeting was more important than the confrontation which is going on the streets and people's lives are at risk," he said.

BIG MISTAKE

After the initial burst of people's anger following last November's U-turn on policy away from Europe and police heavy-handed treatment of student protesters, Yanukovich may have been hoping to win over the public after securing a $15 billion aid package from Russia.

But any tangible benefit from Russian aid has yet to trickle down to the Ukrainian public, many of whom feel more sore about losing the prospects of a European future including visa-free travel to the West.

When Yanukovich loyalists in parliament last Thursday rushed draconian laws against public protest - legislation which could have come from an old Soviet playbook - it was the last straw for protesters whose numbers had until then been dwindling on Kiev"s Independence Square.

"These laws were a police club to hold over protesters and neutralize them. All they did was pour oil on the flames, make the situation sharper and radicalize the protests. These laws were the biggest mistake of Yanukovich this year," Fesenko said.

With control over the protest movement apparently slipping from the hands of opposition leaders - Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok - the situation is becoming more combustible.

On Sunday, when violent clashes with police erupted, only Klitschko went to the scene to try to persuade masked radicals to withdraw - and he was only partially successful.

"The opposition has only limited control now. They have no influence at all over how the activists are now behaving. The 'field commanders' (of the protesters) are the ones in charge now," said Taras Berezovets, head of Berta communications think-tank.

Analysts see mis-steps too in the strategy of the opposition leaders who have been pushing over-ambitious demands for early elections and the dismissal of the government.

"They fluctuate between saying they expect dictatorship and then the next day saying they sense victory. Their demands too are unrealistic: calling for early presidential and parliamentary elections is not realistic," said Fesenko.

But the impression is growing that Yanukovich, a hard-to-read politician whose public appearances are becoming more and more rare, could be out of tune with the real threat on the streets.

Berezovets said Yanukovich, whose official movements are largely unknown, relies for guidance only a restricted group of advisers.

"He meets regularly with only 6-7 people. This is a dangerous situation: he has a tight group round him and depends only on their recommendations. He does not see the situation in the round," Berezovets said.

On Monday night, after a day of violence on Kiev streets, Yanukovich appealed for people to distance themselves from the radical protesters and urged them to "dialogue and compromise".

But he has made no real proposal for national reconciliation or showed any readiness to re-consider policy.

With the centre of Ukraine's capital city a "no-go" area to security forces, pressure is mounting on Yanukovich to take some decisive step to keep onside with his constituency in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country.

His popularity ratings have plummeted since the onset of the crisis in November and any more serious mis-steps in handling the crisis will seriously threaten his chances of securing a second term in office in February 2015.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing by Richard Balmforth)

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