Ukrainian police warned pro-Europe protesters on Thursday they faced a “harsh” crackdown if they did not end their occupation of public offices in Kiev, while President Viktor Yanukovich’s prime minister denounced them as “Nazis and criminals.”
The authorities issued the tough warnings as foreign ministers held a European security conference in a city seething with unrest over the Ukrainian government’s U-turn away from Europe back toward Russia.
Germany’s visiting foreign minister used the occasion to warn Ukraine against violently cracking down on protesters. Russia responded by accusing EU officials of “hysteria.”
Kiev’s November 21 decision to abandon a trade and integration deal with the EU and pursue closer economic ties with Moscow brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets over the weekend. Protesters have since blockaded the main government headquarters and occupied Kiev’s city hall.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov defended his government’s handling of the crisis. He clashed sharply with Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who has used his visit to Kiev for a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to show solidarity with the demonstrators.
“Nazis, extremists and criminals cannot be, in any way, our partners in ‘Eurointegration,’” the government website quoted Azarov as telling Westerwelle.
Westerwelle expressed concern about police behavior at the protests, when dozens of people were severely beaten.
“Recent events, in particular the violence against peaceful demonstrators last Saturday in Kiev, worry me greatly,” said Westerwelle. “The way Ukraine responds to the pro-European rallies is a yardstick for how seriously Ukraine takes the shared values of the OSCE.”
In a pointed gesture, Westerwelle visited the main protest center in Kiev’s Independence Square on Wednesday and met opposition leaders who have called for Yanukovich to resign. Several other EU ministers made the same trip on Thursday.
The crisis has exposed a gulf between Ukrainians, many from the west of the country, who hope to move rapidly into the European mainstream, and those mainly from the east who look to the former Soviet master, Moscow, as a guarantor of stability.
EU countries, especially those like Germany and Poland with experience of Cold War-era Russian domination, are keen to bind Ukraine and its 46 million people closely with the West and say their trade pact would have brought a surge of investment.
Moscow wants Kiev instead to join a customs union that it dominates with other ex-Soviet republics. Russia exerts powerful leverage because of Ukraine’s dependence on its natural gas.