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Back from the brink in Ukraine

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has recognised the increasingly dangerous nature of the situation in his country by announcing early elections and a return to the 2004 Constitution, which will limit the President’s powers. This follows escalating violence over the last several days, in which — according to the Health Ministry — 77 people, including police personnel, have been killed and 577 injured. International condemnation was rapid, with U.S. President Barack Obama warning against Ukrainian military involvement and calls for sanctions coming from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. Reactions within Ukraine have included the occupation of civic buildings in the western city of Lviv; rail services between the capital, Kiev, and Lviv were suspended, and at least 45 Ukrainian athletes have returned home from the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The violence caused severe divisions throughout the country, with several police officers siding with or joining the protesters; as it was, the Yanukovych government had long incurred public distrust for corruption and nepotism.

In addition, the President’s own moves had exacerbated the uncertainty; for example, he replaced the head of the armed forces, Colonel-General Volodymyr Zamana, with Admiral Yuriy Ilyin, but without giving reasons. The Defence Ministry also said the military might be used for “antiterrorist” operations, but legally the government is obliged first to impose a state of emergency, and the armed forces have rightly resisted getting involved. One ugly development has been the rising political star of far-right groups such as Prawy Sektor (Right Sector) and the anti-Semitic Svoboda, the third-largest opposition party. Right Sector says it did not agree to the February 19 “truce” and that there was “nothing to negotiate.” The focus now, however, must be on orderly and peaceful progress towards elections which must be impeccably conducted if the country is not to face further crises. That particularly requires genuinely constructive conduct on the part of Russia and the European Union; the latter has been less than straightforward at times, as its earlier association agreement with Ukraine — which Mr. Yanukovych abandoned in December 2013 — was tied to International Monetary Fund conditions and to closer military cooperation between Ukraine and the EU’s NATO-dominated military institutions. Crucially, only 30 per cent of Ukrainians supported the deal, which also incurred Moscow’s displeasure. Now, however, Ukrainians have an opportunity to make their own decisions about their future in the best possible way, with a democratic election; they must make the most of it.

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