Violence in Kyiv following controversial constitutional amendments

In Kyiv three members of the National Guard died as a result of injuries sustained by a grenade explosion during protests in the Ukrainian capital on Monday. A further 140 people, mostly law enforcement officers, were hospitalized after a group of protesters tried to storm the parliament and clashed with the National Guard. The far-right Svoboda party organized protests with the participation of other far right-wing/populist groups, which took place after the parliament voted in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment expanding autonomy to the separatist-held territories in Eastern Ukraine, in accordance to the terms of the second Minsk cease-fire agreement. President Petro Poroshenko puts the blame on ultra-nationalist groups as Svoboda and Right Sector and called the violence “a stab in the back” and “an anti-Ukrainian action”. His prime minister Arseniy Yetsenyuk stated that “so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces” were weakening the country by “opening a second front inside the country”.

Separatists’ demands

The protests took place during the preliminary voting in the Verkhovna Roda, the Ukrainian parliament, on president-proposed constitutional amendments, aimed at the decentralization of power in the separatist-held territories in Eastern Ukraine. These constitutional amendments were proposed to meet a condition demanded by Russia in the Minsk truce agreement, but both Russia and the separatists criticized the current Kyiv proposal as an “imitation” of the demands Russia had. President Poroshenko sees this proposal as a chance to keep Ukraine’s territorial integrity as a unitary state while ending the violent conflict in the east of the country. There is also pressure on Poroshenko’s government to act on the terms of the Minsk accord from the European Union and the USA, Kyiv’s most important allies.

Nationalist demands

On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalists feel that the constitutional amendments are giving in to the demands of the aggressor and that the separatists are being rewarded by Kyiv by legitimizing their occupation of Ukrainian territory. While the voting took place the protesters outside the parliament as well as some members of parliament could be heard screaming “shame!” The protesters called the preliminary approval of the bill “a capitulation to the Kremlin”. While the bill on the constitutional amendments was approved by 265 votes, there still needs to be another round of voting on the controversial bill, where Poroshenko will need 300 votes, a two-third majority, in favor to pass the bill.

A new danger

Monday marks the most violent day in Kyiv since the Euromaidan protests that led to the fall of the former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014. In those protests Ukrainian nationalist groups such as Svoboda and Right Sector played an important role, but today they are just as willing to protest against the pro-European government of Poroshenko. Svoboda’s presence in parliament is practically non-existent, but its influence on the streets is great. Svoboda has voluntary units fighting against the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and while they are loosely under the command of Kyiv, they are loyal to Svoboda. It is from one of these units of volunteers in the East that the alleged grenade thrower came. Interior minister Arsen Avakov said Monday that all the perpetrators were arrested, but all organizers of the protest would be summoned and interrogated later, and specified that Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok would be amongst them. He called the events an “anti-Ukrainian war” in which people “dressed in shirts with the Svoboda logo” attacked the National Guards and threw “several” explosive devices. Still 18 protesters out of the 30 protesters that were detained, remain in custody, including the suspected grenade thrower.

International response

The European Union foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini called the situation in Ukraine worrying, and the spokesperson for the US State Department asked for the “peacefully and lawfully addressing of grievances” in Ukraine. The president of Russia ,Vladimir Putin, condemned the violence in Kyiv. Meanwhile the fragile truce between the separatists in Eastern Ukraine and the Poroshenko government, seems to be holding.

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