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‘Army loyalties divided on Ukraine protests’

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REUTERS

Interior Ministry members stand guard near a barricade erected by anti-government protesters in Kiev on February 3, 2014. Picture: Gleb Garanich

Kiev -

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is unlikely to move the army against protesters despite opposition warnings about an imminent intervention - mainly because the loyalty of rank and file soldiers could be in doubt, analysts said.

“The core of the army is made up of young people who grew up in an independent Ukraine,” said Valentyn Badrak, director of the Research Centre for the Army, Demilitarisation and Disarmament in Kiev.

“They are members of a younger generation that feels very close to the aspirations of the Maidan,” or Independence Square in the centre of Kiev, the epicentre of Ukraine's protest movement, Badrak told AFP.

“The high command is made up mostly of officers and generals who grew up in Soviet times and they have a certain discipline, they are ready to obey any order,” he said.

But lower ranks “feel the financial and social difficulties” in Ukraine, he said.

The opposition has been warning for weeks that Yanukovych could be preparing to impose emergency rule by calling the army into the streets, prompting international concern.

The prospect appeared to become more concrete last Friday when the army asked Yanukovych to take “urgent measures” to end a two-month crisis that has claimed at least four lives and left parts of central Kiev looking like a war zone.

The 63-year-old president has battled protests sparked by his decision to ditch key economic and political agreements with the European Union.

The pro-EU protest movement has turned into an all-out drive to oust Yanukovych.

Since the country's 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, the army has always remained neutral.

The military remained above the fray during the pro-democracy 2004 “Orange Revolution” which brought pro-Western opposition leaders to power in a confrontation over an election that was fraudulently won by Yanukovych.

Badrak said imposing emergency rule “will be virtually impossible” because of low morale in a country in which military spending has been a low priority.

“The army is in a pitiful state. An officer with the rank of lieutenant colonel earns as much as a cashier at a supermarket” - or around 300 euros ($405) a month, he said.

“And spending keeps going down,” he said.

Sergiy Zgurets, another military expert, said the army's call on Yanukovych was only “a show of loyalty” to the president.

In fact “the military is divided”, he said.

The Ukrainian military's chief-of-staff, General Volodymyr Zamana, struck a more conciliatory tone on Saturday saying that “no one has the right to use the armed forces to limit the rights of citizens”.

Defence Minister Pavlo Lebedev also said that “a crushing majority of 87 percent” of the army supported Yanukovych - a statement that points to at least some dissent.

“That means 13 percent of the army do not support hardline methods and military action to end the protests,” former defence minister Anatoliy Grytsenko, who is now an opposition politician, told AFP.

“Even taking into account the pressure from the 'tsar', this is a good result,” he said.

Grytsenko also said that a telegram has been going round army units asking them to pledge loyalty to Yanukovych.

“I know that despite the difficulty of the situation there are honest officers in the armed forces who are not signing it.

“I also know of some cases in which the high command is sacking them.” - Sapa-AFP


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