By Mick Antoniw AM, Member National Assembly of Wales and Member of the EU Committee of the Regions

As I write this article, Ukraine is on  knife edge and the situation is changing hour by hour. After several weeks of a tense but relatively peaceful stand off, the situation in Ukraine has deteriorated  and serious violence has broken out again. So far at least 25 persons have been killed and hundreds injured, some seriously.

The risk of civil war is now real and the consequences for Europe have reached a turning  point.

Now is the time for the EU to impose sanctions.

For many of those who have been monitoring the situation in Ukraine and who have met with leaders of the opposition parties and the leaders of the Maidan, the explosion of violence at some stage was inevitable. Ukrainians have had enough of corrupt and dictatorial government and there is growing view that in the absence of any effective rule of law only a political revolution can restore democracy.

A perception popular with the  media is  that the protest is solely a response to the decision by the Ukrainian President Yanukovich not to sign the trade agreement offered by European Union. It is true that this was a catalyst for protest but the underlying causes go far deeper.

Two years ago in Kiev I was being told by local people about the institutionalised corruption of the Yanukovich government and that the country needed a revolution. Corruption has been a longstanding problem and cause of discontent since independence but was grudgingly tolerated.  the election of  Yanukovich as President, with the support of the main Oligarchs such as Akhmetov, was a step too far. There is a clear perception and belief across most of Ukraine that Yanukovich is part of a cabal of oligarchs, politicians and placemen who are engaged in the systematic theft of the country’s wealth. They call it “Gangster Capitalism”.

If that was not enough , one of the first acts of the President was to change the constitution, significantly increasing the power of the President, increasing his  power over parliament, the Government , the Courts and militia.  He used his new powers swiftly, replacing judges in the Constitutional Court including elevating to it a former KGB chief.

In virtually a single day, Yanukovich turned the country from a parliamentary democracy to a de facto Presidential dictatorship.

Shortly afterwards, imprisoning his main Presidential challenger, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, was just  icing on the political cake, leaving the opposition largely leaderless and fragmented. It is ironic that it is only since the establishment of the Maidan that the political parties have begun to work together although still suffer from the lack of any clear leader who can provide the level of unity that Tymoshenko might otherwise provide.

Last year, in Western Ukraine, the level of discontent was visibly rising. I left the country in August 2013 with the clear view that sooner or later the country would erupt. In fact it was probably only the residual cynicism of the failed Orange Revolution that delayed the process.

At every level there is a wide scale perception of state corruption and a denuding of law and order; police and administrative corruption, violence, a loss of confidence in the judiciary and in democratic and electoral processes.

Despite this, the early Maidan protests might well have fizzled after the first couple of weeks had the Government not authorised the brutal and violent attack on the protestors by the Berkut police. This was the catalyst that turned the protest from a relatively small middle class protest to a revolutionary movement with regular demonstrations of up to hundreds of thousands and the spreading of the protest to other parts of Ukraine, particularly, but not exclusively the West.

The demands of the Maidan movement and the opposition have united around three key points.  The Country must revert to the 2004 Constitution re- establishing parliamentary democracy; the President must stand down, and there must be new elections for President and Parliament.

After the outbreak of violence in Kiev leading to the death of a number of demonstrators in January this year, these demands became non-negotiable. Attempts by the EU to intercede have always been doomed to failure and the impotence of the EU and its failure to take effective action has encouraged the Yanukovich administration to play for time. It is clear that this has been the primary strategy of Yanukovich. Whilst being seen to negotiate with opposition party leaders, increased attacks on journalists, activists and opponents through clandestine groups have escalated. The activity of the security services in monitoring and intimidating the opposition activists have increased. The increased activity of “titushki” paid hoodlums and provocateurs including arson attacks on activists leading to at least one death, are part of the strategy. Most protestors realistically expect to be arrested, imprisoned or worse, if they fail in their revolution. They now have nothing to lose. President Yanukovich’s statement that opposition leaders had “crossed the line” is a precursor to their prosecution and arrest and an end to any real political opposition. The announcement of an “anti-terrorist “ crackdown across Ukraine needs no further explanation. Yanukovich is ensuring he will win the next election.

The EU policy of “firm diplomacy” and veiled threats, has inevitably failed.  Maidan leaders told me in January when I visited Kiev as part of an EU fact finding visit by the Committee of the Regions  that it would and that it was bound to.

It is still not too late to impose effective, targeted economic sanctions..

If the European Union fails to respond effectively it will have failed in its duty to the Ukrainian people and have wrecked its ability to play any significant future role in the development of the remainder of the Eastern Partnership of without the sanction of Russia. The consequences for Europe of civil war in Ukraine will be and with dire economic, political and social consequences for the whole of Europe.

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