For the past week, the message from all sides in Ukraine’s ongoing protests over the government’s preference for closer ties to Russia over the European Union has been: We don’t want more confrontation. After a violent police crackdown Dec. 1, government officials promised not to try to oust by force the tens of thousands of demonstrators occupying Kiev’s City Hall and Independence Square. Women protesters, dressed in traditional Ukrainian garb, have passed out warm tea and flowers to riot police assigned to guard government buildings. Protesters and police each took turns playing a piano, in the blue and yellow colors of both Ukraine and the EU, that was placed against police cordons. There was reason to hope that the current unrest could pass as peacefully as the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the massive protests that led to the ouster of a pro-Russian government following a rigged vote.
Events this past weekend, however, threaten to upend that non-violent outcome. After a seething crowd was seen pulling down a statue of Lenin, the most prominent monument to Communism in Kiev, police moved in to close off exits to Independence Square. Protesters are calling on President Viktor Yanukovych and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to resign after their decision to forgo an association pact with the EU in favor of maintaining closer ties with Russia, the country’s powerful neighbor. Members of Yanukovych’s government have said authorities are willing to negotiate with protest leaders. The worry now is Yanukovych will declare a state of emergency and forcefully remove protesters from the square and government buildings.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Yanukovych Sunday to implore him to respond to protestors’ demands. US Secretary of State John Kerry should follow up on that call. Now the message must be that martial law will escalate the unrest, not end it, and if any blood is shed, the world will hold Yanukovych responsible.