KIEV — After a night of clashes with protesters in Independence Square, security forces appeared to pull back Wednesday from the central plaza in Kiev where demonstrators have been rallying against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych for more than two weeks.
The police had taken control of a large section of the square and brought in front-end loaders and other heavy equipment to clear it. But by 11 a.m., the police presence had dwindled and pedestrians were walking freely through the square.
The interior minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, issued a statement Wednesday saying the overnight crackdown had been needed to ease traffic congestion in Kiev and promised that there would be no dispersal of the protesters in the square.
“No one infringes on citizens’ rights to peaceful protests,” he said. “But we cannot ignore the rights and legal interests of other citizens.”
He said the clearing of the streets was carried out in accordance with a court order. Many protesters had been calling for Zakharchenko’s dismissal after a bloody crackdown on demonstrators Nov. 30.
‘This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.’
Although the police pushed forcefully through the crowd in the square early Wednesday, they did not use their truncheons and there was no repeat of the flagrant violence of two weeks ago.
The effort to clear large parts of the main protest site was a stinging rebuke to Western diplomats who thought they had received promises that force would not be used against peaceful demonstrators.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader in Parliament of the opposition Fatherland Party and a main organizer of the protest movement, said the police action showed that Yanukovych was dismissive of Western leaders, and of Ukrainians.
“He spit in the face of America, EU countries, and 46 million Ukrainians,” Yatsenyuk said in remarks from the stage at Independence Square, where the sound system was still functioning Wednesday. “We won’t forgive this.”
Those officials were inevitably left wondering whether they had miscalculated in urging leaders of the protests to negotiate with Yanukovych and in their own efforts to do so.
The crackdown by the authorities came after a 3½-hour meeting between Yanukovych and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief.
The diplomatic consequences became apparent almost immediately.
“I was among you,” Ashton said in a statement Wednesday.
“The authorities did not need to act under the cover of night,” Ashton added.
And in unusually strong language, Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed the United States’ “disgust” with the authorities’ decision to use force.
“This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy,” he said in a statement.
He added: “As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kiev, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.”
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who was in Kiev as the police action unfolded, visited Independence Square on Wednesday to hand out bread to demonstrators and to Interior Ministry police officers who spent the night on the street before heading to a meeting with Yanukovych.
After the meeting, Nuland condemned the police action but said the United States had conveyed to Yanukovych that it would still be possible conclude a free-trade pact with the European Union and negotiate a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night, what has been happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state,” she said.
“But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine’s European future.”