Anti-government protests in Ukraine have the potential to spin dangerously out of control. President Viktor Yanukovych could take the heat out of them by meeting the demonstrators' demands, but he has so far made clear he has no intention of budging. With no clear opposition leader to take charge, the protests are being driven less by planned direction than the uncertainties of social media. Ukrainians have to chart their nation's course, but if calm is to be restored, the European Union and Russia also have to work together to defuse the tension.
The EU and Moscow are, after all, ultimately the reason for the unrest. Ukraine has for years been geopolitically torn between the two as they tussle for influence. The protests were sparked by Yanukovych's surprise shunning last month of a landmark pact with the EU in favour of closer economic ties with Russia. Demonstrators see their future with the EU, four nations of which border their country, rather than with Russia and the past; Moscow was their overlord until independence with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
Their determination was on show at the weekend with the symbolic toppling in Kiev of a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and the placing of an EU flag on the plinth. But the bringing down of the statue also showed how different the protests are from those of the largely peaceful ones of the orange revolution nine years ago that thwarted Yanukovych's first run at the presidency. There has been violence and deaths, with riot police brutally cracking down on demonstrators.
Ukraine teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, its woes largely the product of Yanukovych's misrule and a corrupt governing class. He has to agree to dialogue with opponents and respect civil rights. A referendum is the best way to determine whether the country should integrate with the EU or look to Russia. The International Monetary Fund can provide long-term help and economic stability, but negotiations for a lasting peace have to be driven by the EU and Moscow.