As violence continues to rage in the Ukrainian capital, radical protestors have seized the Ministry of Energy and Coal Industry, the second ministry to fall in Kyiv. This follows a pattern across the west and centre of Ukraine over the past two days, where anti-government demonstrators are occupying more state and regional institutions in protest at the government’s refusal to sign a deal that would bring the country closer to the EU.
According to the radical nationalist Spil’no Spravo group, the protestors entered the building by breaking through the main doors, encountering no resistance. “We didn’t storm the building, we just walked in,” they told bne. Due to the strategic significance of the ministry – it has oversight of the nuclear power network – Spil’na Sprava activists in the building said they have agreed to allow the energy ministry to continue operating and ministry employees are being allowed to remain to run crucial infrastructure systems. In an official communication, head of Spil’na Sprava, Oleksandr Danilyuk, said that only officials directly involved in running core infrastructure would be allowed to enter the building.
Ukraine’s energy ministry has been the target of major corruption accusations. Energy Minister Eduard Stavitsky is a close associate of the family of President Viktor Yanukovych. The opposition accuses Stavitsky of having illegally privatized to the Yanukovych family the gigantic Mezhgiriya estate near Kyiv in 2007, in his then capacity as head of a government agency. The Mezhgiriya estate, including President Yanukovych’s luxurious mansion, has been a focus of popular ire.
In an interview with bne inside the energy ministry, a clearly unnerved Stavitsky claimed the country’s nuclear security was at stake. “An armed bandit formation [January 24] tried to seize the Rivne atomic power station,” Stavitsky said. “They were in fact interested mostly in the safe where the cash is held, but our special security units managed to repulse them.”
“Surely nobody is interested in a second Chernobyl,” Stavitsky added.
There is no independent confirmation of any attack on the Rivne atomic power station, and no mention of such on the website of the national nuclear power operator Energoatom. “I have not heard of any such incident from my sources, and I consider it very unlikely – the protestors and population in general are very conscious of the need for nuclear safety,” said Sergei Zibtsev, an expert on Ukraine’s nuclear sector.
Stavitsky denied his ministry had been seized by Spil’na Sprava, despite activists from the group clearly controlling admission to building. “As you see I am here at my workplace and we are in a normal working regime,” he said.
Stavitsky refused to comment on whether the government might declare a state of emergency, saying this is a decision for the president according to the constitution. Yanukovych on January 24 pledged to amend anti-protest laws and reshuffle the cabinet in order to bring an end to the crisis that has rocked this country since his government ditched a proposed EU in favour of closer ties with Russia, but opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko said the protesters now want the president to resign.
Asked by bne why the energy ministry, a strategic object directly adjacent to the protest camp on Independence Square (commonly called Maidan), had taken no measures to ensure its own defence, Stavitsky said: “I am not going to call on Berkut [riot police] to protect us. That is not our approach. If there is a serious threat, we have our own special units to call on where necessary, but the decision was taken not to do so.”
The regular guards in the energy ministry building told bne they knew nothing of any special units. Guards at national energy company Naftogaz, also immediately adjacent to Maidan, also told bne that they were only a handful, and would be able to do nothing in the event of occupation of the building by protestors. Shutters were up behind the central entrance and the company sign had been removed from the exterior. Employees were peering nervously out of window apparently in anticipation of an attempt at seizure. “Let’s not frighten people,” Stavitsky told bne, when asked whether Naftogaz could be the next to fall.
Just along from the energy ministry, employees at the agriculture ministry, seized January 24 by Spil’na Sprava, were removing files and computers from the building preparing to work from home. “We are responsible for the country’s food security,” an employee told bne. “We can’t just stop working because there’s a revolution.”
Employees said there was a search on for alternative premises. They said they had received no communications from Agriculture Minister Mykola Prisiazhniuk, who like Stavitsky is a close associate and business partner of the Yanukovych family. “We have only seen [Prisiazhniuk] on television” they said.
Spil’na Sprava leader Danylyuk on his Facebook page has called for people to apply for Prisiazhniuk’s job. “Priority will go to farmers coming on [January 25} together with agricultural machinery,” he said.
Opposition leader and former economy and foreign minister, Petro Poroschenko, pointed out the elephant in the room, in comments on social media on January 25. “Ukraine is no longer experiencing a political crisis. It’s a crisis of statehood.”