26 Feb 2014

Ukraine’s new government faces the people

Members of Ukraine’s new government are brought out to face the people at Kiev’s independence square. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin puts troops on alert.

  • Pro-Russia separatists and opposition supporters clash in Crimea
  • Ukraine’s pro-western interim leaders set to unveil new governement
  • Ukraine’s riot police force, the Berkut, is disbanded
  • President Putin orders an urgent drill in western Russia
  • Vitali Klitschko announces his intention to run for presidential elections

Thousands of ethnic Russians, who form the majority in Ukraine’s Crimea region, demonstrated for independence for the peninsula on Wednesday that hosts part of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet.

They scuffled with rival demonstrators, mainly from the Tatar minority, who support the new authorities in Kiev.

Also on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin put Russian combat troops on high alert for a drill, the Kremlin’s most powerful gesture yet after days of sabre rattling since its ally Viktor Yanukovich was toppled as president of Ukraine.

The developments came as Ukraine’s new interim govrnment was presented at Kiev’s main protest camp, the Maidan. Arseniy atsenyuk was named as prime minister. The cabinet will be voted on by MPs on Thursday.

In the Crimean regional capital, Simferopol, pro-Russian crowds, some of them cossacks in silk and lambswool hats, shouted “Crimea is Russian.”

With borders drawn by Bolshevik commissars, the split in Ukraine largely falls between a mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and eastern provinces where Russian is spoken. Crimea was administered as part of Russia within the Soviet Union until 1954 when it was attached to Soviet Ukraine, and has seen separatist flareups during previous disagreements between Moscow and Kiev.

Ukraine’s pro-Western interim leaders were set to symbolically unveil their new cabinet in front of the crowd at Kiev’s Independence Square at 7pm (5pm GMT).

Moscow flexes its muscles

Moscow has denounced what it described as the rise of “nationalist and neo-fascist sentiment,” in Ukraine’s western areas.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was taking measures to ensure security of the facilities and arms at its Black Sea Naval Fleet based on the Crimean coast in southern Ukraine.

“We are carefully watching what is happening in Crimea, what is happening around the Black Sea Fleet,” Russian state news agency RIA reported Shoigu as saying. “We are taking measures to guarantee the safety of facilities, infrastructure and arsenals of the Black Sea Fleet.”

President Putin also ordered an urgent drill to test the combat readiness of the armed forces across western Russia.

Any military action in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people that has close ties with European powers and the United States, would be far more serious – arguably the closest the West and Russia have come to outright confrontation since the Cold War.

Berkut riot police disbanded

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s riot police force, the Berkut, who have been held responsible for killing most of the 100 protesters who died in the clashes in Kiev’s Independence Square, have been disbanded.

Snipers from the Berkut force – whose name means golden eagle and signifies a predator capable of swooping quickly on to its prey – are blamed for the deaths of most of the protesters in a three-day spasm of violence last week.

On Tuesday members of the Berkut force fell to their knees to apologise for the beatings and killings of Maidan protestersm (see video above).

Heads bowed they faced the people of Lviv and told them they were not the ones who attacked the protesters but that they were ashamed of what security forces had done. “Half of the people here are innocent and should not fall to their knees. They are not not guilty of anything. They have taken an oath to protect the Ukrainian people. They did not shoot at the people and kept their oath, they did not beat people. They were simply caught up in the situation,” said Berkut policeman Yaroslav Bilyak.

Lviv had declared political autonomy last Wednesday after a night of violence when they forced local police to surrender.

The regional assembly in Lviv is a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism and had issued a statement condemning ousted President Yanukovych’s government for its “open warfare” on demonstrators in Kiev.

Ukraine appears sharply divided after months of protests that ultimately forced the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovych to flee the capital.

While Kiev and western Ukraine have risen up against Mr Yanukovych, he remains popular in the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions, where economic and cultural ties with Russia are strong. Ms Tymoshenko, who was freed on Saturday after spending two-and-a-half years in prison on charges that many in the West called politically tainted, has not yet declared whether she will run.

Cold War politics?

But Britain and the US rejected suggestions that Ukraine’s political turmoil is a return to east-west, Cold War-era politics.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the focus should be on “the people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future”.

Speaking at a panel discussion in Washington on Tuesday (above), Mr Kerry said: “This is not a zero-sum game, it is not a west versus east, it should not be.

“It is not a Russia or the United States or other choices, this is about the people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future and we want to work with Russia, with other countries, with everybody available, to make sure this is peaceful from this day forward because obviously, the terrible violence that took place in the Maidan was a shock to everybody in the world.”

Mr Hague added: “I think we’re clear from our talks today that we see it in exactly the same way – this is about the rights of a free people, a free democratic Ukraine, to make their own decisions.”