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The Ukrainian Opposition’s Moment of Truth
ANNABELLE CHAPMAN is a journalist writing from Poland and Ukraine. Follower her on Twitter @AB_Chapman.See more by this author
Following long days of street warfare, which led to the first deaths since antigovernment protests began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union, Yanukovych signaled this week that he might be ready to acknowledge some of the opposition’s demands. On Monday, he announced that the anti-protest laws his government had passed on November 16 would be scrapped. Then, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned. At first blush, this might have seemed like a perfect opportunity for Ukraine’s three opposition leaders -- Vitali Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- to step in and take his place. Instead, it put them in a difficult situation and highlighted the tensions between them and the protesters.
That might have been precisely what Yanukovych intended the Saturday before, when he offered Azarov’s job to the opposition. He tapped Yatsenyuk, who leads the imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, as the potential prime minister, and Klitschko, the world-boxing champion and leader of UDAR (the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, literally “punch”), as deputy prime minister for humanitarian affairs. The announcement was not greeted with much enthusiasm on Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan. When the opposition leaders, emerging from three hours of talks with Yanukovych, appeared to reject the offer, it prompted a sigh of relief. “No deal @ua_yanukovych, we're finishing what we started,” Yatsenyuk tweeted in English later that evening. “The people decide our leaders, not you.”
For all that bravado, however, Yatsenyuk and Klitschko are in a difficult position. Rejecting Yanukovych’s deal would make them appear unwilling to negotiate. After all, for some Ukrainians, the offer might seem like a welcome chance to lower tensions following the worst week of clashes since the protests began. But accepting the deal would brand Yatsenyuk and Klitschko as traitors in the eyes of the protesters, many of whom have been out in the cold for weeks. It would also hurt their chances of beating Yanukovych in a presidential election next year.