KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's justice minister threatened retaliation Monday as protesters continued to occupy one of the ministry's buildings in central Kiev in a bid to shut down the government of President Viktor Yanukovich.
“If, within half an hour, the protesters don't leave the ministry's building, I will demand that the National Security Council immediately declare a state of emergency,” Elena Lukash said in televised remarks early Monday. Hours passed without any such declaration.
According to Ukrainian law, a state of emergency must be declared by the president and then approved by parliament within two days.
The protesters had captured the Justice Ministry building late Saturday night, not long after taking another strategically important building known as Ukrainian House. The latter building had been a temporary base for police forces attempting to put down the demonstrations that have roiled central Kiev since late November.
The government has so far been unable to stop the momentum of the protests, which began in response to Yanukovich's decision to turn down a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. Since then, the protests have widened to include calls to end government corruption and for Yanukovich to declare new elections for president and parliament.
One opposition lawmaker, former Deputy Interior Minister Gennady Moskal, claimed Monday that authorities are preparing a major operation against the protesters.
About 10,000 policemen, special forces officers and border troops are being hastily trained for the operation, Moskal wrote on Facebook.
But a spokesman for one of the groups that has joined the opposition, Spilna Sprava, or Common Cause, said the government is incapable of using force against the protesters and is spreading such rumors as intimidation tactics, “which is in fact nothing but a bluff.”
“We will continue to seize ministry after ministry to block the government work,” Alexander Moiseyenko said in an interview with The Times inside the captured Justice Ministry building. “This is how state power is making a transition into the hands of the people."
He added: "Yanukovich doesn't have enough resources to oppose the revolution spreading like wildfire across the country. We can take any ministry, any court, any agency in Kiev today and no one can prevent us.”
Spilna Sprava members, armed with tree branches and wearing military helmets, were responsible for capturing the Justice Ministry building around midnight local time Saturday, breaking in through a ground-floor window. A handful of police officers inside didn't offer any resistance, but instead locked themselves in a room, a participant in the siege said. They later were let go.
“The operation went without a hitch, and we shouldn't really have smashed the window since they would have let us in anyway,” said the protester, who referred to himself only Vyacheslav, 36, a Kiev business manager. “I know they may come back soon, but we are ready for a good fight.”
The seized Justice Ministry building is next to the protest camp that has been established in Kiev's central Independence Square, and not far from Ukrainian House, which opposition forces seized from approximately 300 police officers who had occupied it. Protesters have also seized the Agriculture Ministry building.
Yanukovich has offered a package of concessions to opposition leaders, including a say in filling the prime minister's job. But the opposition has so far not agreed to any terms, and may hold out for its ultimate goal, which is unseating Yanukovich. The two sides began a new round of talks late Monday but it was not immediately clear whether those would yield any progress.
In a sign of disarray among the government's foes, however, opposition leaders distanced themselves from the group that seized the Justice Ministry building.
“I don't understand, as a citizen of Ukraine and as a lawmaker, how 50 people can capture a Justice Ministry building whose protection unit consists of a couple of officers, especially given that ... the minister makes a statement that she would call ... for a state of emergency,” opposition lawmaker Stepan Kubiv said at a briefing Monday. “We are dissociating ourselves from this action.”
The most serious problem facing the opposition leaders is their apparent inability to control the various factions that have aligned themselves with the protest movement, political scientist Kost Bondarenko said.
“While continuing negotiations with the president, the opposition should be proving on a daily basis that it can control the so-called wild forces within the protest movement,” Bodarenko, director of the Ukainian Policy Institute, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview.
“Yanukovich is no [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in the sense that he is terribly afraid of any bloodshed and he would rather call for changes in the constitution and early elections than order a full-scale combat operation," he added, "but the opposition leaders should help him to make the right choice by conducting negotiations with those 'wild protest factions' to keep them under control. This second task may prove to be quite harder than talking to Yanukovich.”
The newspaper Ukrainskaya Pravda reported that that some foreign embassies in Kiev were informed by the Foreign Ministry of the possibility that a state of emergency might be imposed. However, the Foreign Ministry said the report was not true.