KIEV – Two months since the first protests erupted in Ukraine over the government’s rejection of an EU pact, the protest movement has radicalized as impatience grows with the inability of opposition leaders to bring about change.
Demonstrators are still occupying Independence Square in central Kiev, known locally as the Maidan and the center of 2004′s Orange Revolution, where a vast tent city has sprouted up.
However, over the last days the focus has switched to Grushevsky Street, a five-minute walk away, where radical protesters have been engaging in pitched battles with the security forces.
On Wednesday, medics declared three people dead in clashes between protesters and police in the capital.
An AP reporter saw medics declare two people dead near the barricades where police and protesters have confronted each other for three days. Oleh Bondar, a medic, said the two men died of bullet wounds, but would not specify whether they were rubber or real bullets.
Oleh Musiy, coordinator of the medical corps for the protesters, said the other death occurred when one activist died Wednesday morning in a hospital after falling from a high altitude at the site of the clashes.
Police began dismantling barricades near a government district in Kiev on Wednesday morning, but protesters soon pushed them back to their original positions.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov had warned Tuesday that the security forces could use force to disperse protests after clashes that left hundreds wounded.
Azarov told Russian television that if “provocateurs” did not stop, the authorities could act under the new laws that essentially ban large protests.
His comments came as influential news site Dzerkalo Tyzhnia said that the authorities had already worked out a precise plan to regain control of the site of the intense clashes between protesters and the security forces.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the situation in Ukraine was spiraling out of control after two months of protests over President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign a deal with the European Union.
Clashes raged in the center of the Ukrainian capital until early morning Tuesday, with demonstrators flinging Molotov cocktails and stones at security forces who hit back with stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas.
The day was relatively calm but sporadic clashes resumed late in the night Tuesday. However, the exchanges lacked the ferocity of previous evenings.
With the first deaths in the largely peaceful protests, the crisis appears likely to escalate.
The main opposition leaders now appear unable to control the situation. On Sunday, they found themselves heckled and whistled by a mass protest in Independence Square.
Hard-core protesters then provoked bloody clashes with police who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. Hundreds were injured and 50 activists arrested.
In a change from the last weeks of the protest, the hard-core group fighting the security forces does not appear to be linked to any political party, even the ultranationalists Svoboda (Freedom) group.
They have been linked to a little-known group called “Right Sector” that has organized its actions on the Internet.
The protesters have been particularly outraged by parliament’s adoption last week of new anti-protest laws, which make most forms of public protest illegal and ban the wearing of helmets and driving in a convoy of more than five cars.
“The main motivation of people is discontent with the actions of the authorities,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta research center in Kiev.
“People were provoked in such a way, so they remain in the square and go to rallies,” Fesenko said.
“There is fatigue, but people still have enough protest energy. The Maidan will stay until either it is finally broken up or its requirements met,” Fesenko added.
The protesters have not lost their determination, braving temperatures of minus 10 degrees Celsius and demanding opposition leaders act properly to undermine Yanukovych.
But frustration has grown with opposition chiefs Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyagnybok, who have disappointed many supporters by their indecisiveness and lack of a clear action plan.
Tyagnybok, whose fiery rhetoric roused a huge response during the protests’ early weeks, has all but vanished from sight over the last days. Klitschko and Yatsenyuk have blamed the government for the clashes but notably stop short of supporting the use of violence against security forces.
“The laws that have been adopted violate my rights and the constitution,” said 35-year-old Olexandr Emelyanov of the central Kirovograd region, warming himself in the tent camp near a metal barrel with a fire amid temperatures of around minus 10.
The protests started on the evening of Nov. 21 after authorities’ decision to halt preparations to sign an Association Agreement with the EU.
They developed into a broader movement to oust Yanukovych, whom the opposition accuses of corruption, surrounding himself with cronies known as the “Family” and being behind the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The protesters on the Maidan are not only from Kiev — most arrived from the pro-European western and central regions of Ukraine, setting up tents with attached posters declaring the names of their cities.
They strengthened their camp with 3-meter-high improvised barricades after an unsuccessful assault by police in mid-December, and several thousand people spend each night in tents in the area on the Maidan.
“Our tent can accommodate up to 25 people,” said Yaroslav Putilin, 46, from the neighboring Kiev Cherkassy region.
As an itinerant worker, he, like many others, comes to live in the area for four to five days, after which his group is relieved by another one from the same region.