A divide is deepening in Ukraine

When the going gets tough, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych goes away, at least for a while. As the country threatens to erupt in civil war, Yanukovych returned Monday from a four-day sick leave that he’d taken on the heels of the resignation of Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov. His return filled what would have been an alarming vacuum at the top of the Ukrainian government.

Protests broke out in Ukraine in late November when Yanukovych decided not to sign a trade deal with the European Union that would have opened the door to a wider relationship and even eventual membership in the EU.

While the agreement responded to the aspirations of many, if not most, Ukrainians who yearn for the freedoms and opportunities associated with the West, it angered Russia, which believes Ukraine belongs in its sphere of influence.

At the same time, Europe’s demand for reforms that protected human rights grated on a Ukrainian government that objected to the criticism implicit in the call for reform as well as for the release of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Pressure from Moscow to step away from the deal was matched by offers of financial assistance. Ukraine’s economy has encountered difficulties in the past two years, shrinking 0.5 percent in 2013 after expanding a mere 0.2 percent in 2012. The country’s central bank has reportedly spent about half its foreign currency reserves to prop up the hryvnia, the Urkainian currency, and there are fears that its value will tumble another 15 percent.

Economists attribute Ukraine’s hardships to shrinking demand for steel, one of Ukraine’s top exports, and Russian barriers to the import of grain, the country’s other currency earning.

In the face of these difficulties, the Russian offer of $15 billion in aid was more than just a sweetener, especially when the Europeans only put $834 million on the table.

Within a week, protesters had taken to the streets, prompting a violent crackdown by the authorities. The heavy-handed response transformed the demonstrations into more generalized grievances against the regime, including brutality and corruption.

The government again over-reacted in early January by passing legislation that restricted the right to protest, a move that prompted demonstrations elsewhere in the country and escalated the confrontation. Within a week, two protesters would die after being shot by the police, inflaming anti-government sentiment higher still. Recognizing that the hard-line had hurt his standing. Yanukovych extended an olive branch to the opposition, offering them jobs in his Cabinet, including the prime minister’s slot, but he was rebuffed. On Jan. 28 the protest law was annulled and Azarov and the Cabinet resigned. The next day, Parliament passed an amnesty law for detained protesters, on the condition that they leave occupied buildings. Again, the gambit was denied.

The anti-government movement is getting stronger and more militant. If the government is trying to be more conciliatory, the riot police are sticking to the familiar script: At least five people have been killed in recent weeks, and another 20 are missing. The number of injured is unknown, reportedly because protesters refuse to go to hospitals for fear of being abducted by pro-government forces.

The fear now is that Ukraine may descend into civil war. The government’s retreat is intended to take the air out of the protest movement, but the momentum may be too far advanced to stop. It appears as though even the opposition has been surprised by the vehemence of the street movement and it is no longer clear who controls the protesters or if they can be reined in.

Worse for Yanukovych, he is losing the support of business interests that have been key to his government’s survival. That group, too, is angry at the corruption of Yanukovych family members and hangers-on, who have enriched themselves at the expense of established business interests.

More ominous still, Russia, unwilling to risk international criticism as the Sochi Olympic Games start this week, appears to be waiting to see how things develop. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country was aiding the Ukrainian nation, not a particular government, and that future assistance would depend on what the new government looks like. At the same time, Moscow is reportedly ramping up pressure by renewing sanctions and blocking the export of Ukrainian goods into Russia.

On Monday, the United States and the EU were trying to craft a short-term aid package for Ukraine, to be delivered if a new government led by an opposition leader is established.

There was fear that hardliners would either push for a crackdown, arguing that the refusal of the amnesty showed that the opposition had no interest in a compromise, or seize the moment among the protesters and try to topple the government. Clashes among protesters suggest that the movement is divided as well.

Oddly, cold weather may dampen tensions as protesters move indoors. Cooler heads are needed to forge a compromise. The president needs to lead his country, looking for common ground, no matter how frozen.