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Europe condemns the violence in Ukraine

Ukrainian riot police are hit by a petrol bomb during clashes. Photo: Reuters

These are difficult days for Ukraine, a country edging toward its second revolution in a decade.

Five days ago the government - under direction from the President Viktor Yanukovych - pushed through draconian laws to prevent protests on the country’s streets and limiting access to certain websites.

For the last 24 hours, in spite of the laws, those streets have seen some of the biggest demonstrations in their history and some of the most violent.

Ukrainian riot police are hit by a petrol bomb during riots. Credit: Reuters

There were 100,000 protesters rallying in Independence Square - vehicles were set alight while petrol bombs and rocks were thrown at the police. Security forces responded with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas. At least 30 people suffered serious injuries.

The protests began two months ago - but it is the attempt to ban them, which has brought real defiance and a growing fear Kiev is becoming increasingly subordinate to the Kremlin.

In November, to the outrage of many in Kiev and western Ukraine, President Yanukovych backed out of signing a pact with Europe, which would bring the country closer to EU integration.

Weeks later, he announced a major deal to protect Ukraine’s financial future but this time backed by President Vladimir Putin and Russia.

For Putin, the deal marked a moment of huge success: he has long-sought to strengthen the Eurasian Union, a trading group made up of former states of the Soviet Union.

But, as well as financial benefits to Russia, this deal also reduces the EU’s influence with countries the Russian leader is seeking to build closer relations with - and that is in part why so many are upset by the move.

The EU continues to insist the chance for Ukraine to change its allegiance is still there but the recent violence has brought condemnation from foreign ministers meeting in Brussels.

They want to see a repeal of the laws restricting the right to protest and for the press to be able to work freely. It is a great tussle between the 28 nation state block and the might of President Putin.

Putin has long-sought to strengthen the Eurasian Union. Credit: Press Association

According to Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe, the EU now needs to help Ukraine and its protesters find a way forward.

"The EU can help Ukraine by doing two things," she says. "First, it should embark on an aggressive public diplomacy campaign by stepping up its support for the opposition’s online and media presence, as well as for Ukraine’s civil society movements.

"Despite Yanukovych’s laws against Western funding for non-governmental organisations, the EU should persist and defend the values it espouses.

"Second, the EU should push forward with highly visible aid programmes. These could include help for hospitals and clean water, measures to support the poor, school and university exchange programmes, and anti-corruption and rule-of-law campaigns.

"There is time for the opposition and the EU to make a difference in Ukraine before the 2015 presidential election. Both should seize that chance."

Both sides are riven with dispute - the opposition can’t find one valid leader behind whom to rally and even the President’s supporters have unease at the power now wielded by Putin.

Talks are scheduled later today but they are massing on the streets of Kiev again tonight, ready to defy and ready to defend.

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