President Viktor Yanukovych had not made many public statements since the unrest began in Ukraine in November. It took almost 24 hours of violent street fighting, by far the deadliest since the unrest began, before he addressed the Ukrainian people at 5 a.m. today. But his statement, like many of the Ukrainian authorities’ actions so far, fell far short of what’s needed in this time of national crisis, with the center of the capital engulfed in flames and the death toll on both sides rising.
Yanukovych blamed opposition leaders for the escalation and said that they will pay the price if they don’t separate themselves from radicals.
There is no doubt that both sides have resorted to violence. But shifting the blame, turning opposition leaders into outlaws and lumping armed fighters and peaceful protesters alike into a shapeless mass of “radicals” only risks further enflaming the situation, and more bloodshed.
Like many, I stayed up last night, glued to the phone and computer screen, catching and connecting pieces of news from witnesses, friends, and journalists in Kiev. Increasingly shocking news came in staccato intervals: burning buildings in the city center, an APC crashing into barricades, water cannons smashing into protesters, deafening explosions of Molotov cocktails, dead bodies on the street outside Khreschatyk metro station. Every hour, the number of the dead and injured grew, climbing into the hundreds.
With each of my trips to Ukraine since December, more and more people would tell me that they felt the police were being allowed to act with almost complete impunity. When I was in eastern Ukraine a week ago, activists told me police were protecting street thugs who attack and beat Maidan supporters and local activists, threaten them with violence in social media, and torch their cars.
A friend who spent last night evacuating the wounded into a makeshift medical center said some feared getting into ambulances because they had heard reports that the police were stopping the ambulances and carrying off injured people.
This is not the time to assign blame or threaten opposition leaders. This is the time for the president to call on police to fulfill their duties responsibly, to use restraint – to make clear that excessive force will not be tolerated. There are still many people at Independence Square who are unarmed and are not involved in violence. Police need to distinguish between those who are fighting and those who are not.
This is the time for Yanukovych to pledge an end to police impunity. It was that issue, after all, that triggered the transformation of a peaceful protest in November into the bloodbath, bordering on civil war, that Ukraine is facing today.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) can and should help, immediately, and not just by making diplomatic calls. The Swiss foreign minister, who is the OSCE’s chair-in-office, should urgently appoint a special envoy, supported by a team of independent human rights and investigative experts, to investigate and publicly report on abuses by all sides.
This is essential for justice and accountability – exactly what people in Ukraine have been fighting for.