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News Analysis: Flip-Flops Point To Splits In Yanukovych's Circle

Protesters hold portraits of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during a demonstration in support of EU integration on Independence Square in Kyiv on November 29.
Protesters hold portraits of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych during a demonstration in support of EU integration on Independence Square in Kyiv on November 29.
Just hours after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych called for roundtable talks with the opposition, police forcefully moved against demonstrators in Kyiv under the cover of darkness -- and hopes of a negotiated settlement to the standoff were dashed.

Yanukovych's reversal, appearing conciliatory after a meeting with three former Ukrainian presidents on December 10 only to crack down that night, was just his latest U-turn. It mirrored another apparent flip-flop weeks earlier, when police used force against protesters on the night of November 30 only to back off and cede the streets to them the next day.

Throughout Ukraine's ongoing crisis, which was sparked by Yanukovych decision to back away from a landmark pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, the president's mixed signals and frequent reversals of course have been dizzying.

According to Kyiv-based political analyst Viktor Nebozhenko, they have created the impression that he is losing control over the situation.

"President Yanukovych is clearly not up to the political task at hand," he says. "He is lost, that is obvious. The fact that he acts in directly contradictory ways -- one minute, he's conciliatory, the next, he is harsh -- shows that he has no strategy and he is simply being carried along with the currents."

He adds that Yanukovych's vacillations are the "main problem" in Ukraine now, producing an atmosphere in Kyiv that Nebozhenko describes as "de facto martial law."

"It is obvious that the president is acting illogically -- at one moment, he is trying to frighten people and then he tries to make compromises," he says. "This is now the main problem -- what move will the president of Ukraine make next?"

Deep Divisions

The Ukrainian government's zigzags reflect deep divisions within Yanukovych's inner circle and conflicting advice that is being offered to him, analysts say. In their view, the external appearance of chaos is the result of intense internal conflict.

Nebozhenko says one group, represented by presidential chief of staff Serhiy Levochkin and oligarch Dmitro Firtash, is urging a softer line with the protesters in hopes of wearing them down. Another, centered around Security Council Secretary Andriy Klyuyev, Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, and others tied to the so-called "Family" of Yanukovych's closest cronies is pushing for a harsh crackdown.

PHOTO GALLERY: Protests In Ukraine

Political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko tells RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the the authorities initial use of force on protesters, on November 30 was initiated by pro-Moscow politician Viktor Medvedchuk and carried out through Klyuyev. Medvedchuk, who served as chief of staff to ex-President Leonid Kuchma, is a formerly powerful behind-the-scenes player with close ties to Russia who has been attempting a return to politics since 2012.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych

Following the November 30-December 1 violence, which led to even bigger demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands took to the streets, Ukrainian media reported that Levochkin had resigned, but that Yanukovych refused to accept it. Such reports further inflamed speculation of splits within the ruling elite.

Adding to the intrigue, Levochkin is rumored to have ties to opposition figure and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, although Klitschko denies this.

But former Yanukovych adviser Taras Chornovyl warns that, in the opaque world of Ukrainian court politics, misleading leaks are commonplace.

"There has been a lot of information alleging that the decisions about using force against protesters [on November 30] were made by [Security Council Secretary Andriy] Klyuyev," he says. "But this information comes from sources that are linked with [presidential chief of staff Serhiy] Levochkin. This personal war between Levochkin and [Interior Minister Vitaliy] Zakharchenko casts doubt on the perception that Levochkin is good and Zaharchenko is definitely bad."

Moscow's 'Long Hand'

And then, of course, there is what Ukrainians call "the long hand of Moscow." Ukrainian political analyst Oleksandr Paliy tells RFE/RL that crackdowns on the protesters only isolate Yanukovych from the West, and "this is something that Moscow is most interested in."

Analyst Nebozhenko also notes Russia's high level of activity in Kyiv.

"No one is even hiding the fact that there is a large contingent of political consultants from the Kremlin here of the type like [Russian presidential adviser Vladislav] Surkov in the corridors of the cabinet of ministers," he says. "Of course, there are [Russian] security people who have infiltrated literally all the structures of the special services, the police, and the presidential security team."

He adds, however that there are also no simple divisions between "pro-Europe" and "pro-Russia" forces within Yanukovych's inner circle. Klyuyev, for instance, has close ties with Russian security forces, but his main economic interests are in Austria.

Firtash's business empire has strong interests both east and west.

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Elena Gnedina, a Paris-based analyst of post-Soviet affairs, says Firtash, despite his strong ties to Russia, favors an Association Agreement with the European Union in hopes of "improving his image in the West." Powerful oligarchs such as Renat Akhmetov and Petro Poroshenko have publicly thrown their support behind closer ties with the EU.

Gnedina adds that Yanukovych has not been as successful at balancing the interests of various oligarchs as former President Leonid Kuchma was, leading to weaknesses in his support now.

Nebozhenko says Azarov is the most pro-Russian force in the upper echelons at the moment, genuinely believing that the antigovernment protests have been organized by the EU and the United States.

But despite the apparent splits in Yanukovych's circle, what unites them -- the desire to remain in power -- could turn out to be more important than what divides them.

"For years we've been hearing about splits within the Donetsk clan [of oligarchs close to Yanukovych] and they are there," says Ivan Lozowy, president of Institute of Statehood and Democracy in Kyiv. "But the joint interests of this group are much stronger because they achieved power in 2010. They have absolute power in Ukraine. It is practically unfettered by any other institutions in the country on a scale unimaginable in any developed Western country. So this is the overriding interest. Even though there may be tactical differences and different points of view, they're all bound by this overriding principle -- they are in power and they are making huge amounts of money."

Lozowy believes Yanukovych and the Donetsk oligarchs who support him are now playing a political game, trying to wear down the protests and then, later, crack down on its leadership much as Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka did following the presidential election there in December 2010.

"The 2015 [presidential election in Ukraine] is happening right now," Lozowy says.

Yevhen Solonin of RFE/RL's Ukraine Service contributed to this report from Kyiv and Andey Shary of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed from Prague