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doug saunders

This is the moment of truth for Viktor Yanukovych, the embattled Ukrainian president: Will he compromise with the protesters who have taken over Ukraine's major cities during the past two months, or will he crack down harder and use military force to put an end to the protest movement?

During the past month, he has done both: First he cracked down, until his attempt to use police to drive the protesters out of Kiev's Independence Square was rebuffed by Molotov cocktail-throwing protesters; then he compromised by dismissing his cabinet and promising to revoke anti-protest laws.

But this failed to resolve anything: There are still thousands of protesters in the streets, and the opposition is still demanding that Mr. Yanukovych call a presidential election and reinstate the trade and economic agreement with the European Union whose sudden rejection in late November triggered the protests.

Mr. Yanukovych is facing pressure from Western leaders and diplomats, who descended on Kiev en masse last week to press him to give into the protesters and sign the EU deal. On the other hand, the president also faces pressure from Vladimir Putin, with whom he met during the Sochi Olympics over the weekend. The Russian president is threatening to withdraw $15-billion in aid, and bill Ukaine for some $3-billion in natural-gas use, if he dares go with the EU offer.

So which way will he go? Given Mr. Yanukovych's tendency toward demagoguery – (the 2004 Orange Revolution was largely a protest against his authoritarianism, and since his 2010 election he has centralized power, quashed media voices and imprisoned opposition leaders), many protesters feel that he will fight back, and are preparing for a street battle.

But in talking with members of Mr. Yanukovych's circle, I got the sense that there is a desire – perhaps out of self-preservation – to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict and avoid something approaching an all-out civil war.

"I don't want to see the new presidential powers removed [from the constitution], but I'm not against a constitutional reform," said Ivan Popescu, a prominent member of parliament from Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions, in an interview. "The opposition should start by making some compromises with us – a memorandum of understanding between the protesters and the Party of Regions."

He is joined by fellow pro-Yanukovych MP Serhii Tihipko, who says he wants a new cross-party emergency cabinet to be formed, and for a compromise agreement to be struck as soon as possible to avoid further deterioration of the Ukrainian economy (its currency, the hryvnia, has collapsed dramatically as investors have lost confidence in Ukraine).

There is considerable pressure for such a compromise to be struck soon. On Tuesday, the European Union called on Mr. Yanukovych to form a new government containing opposition ministers, reform the constitution to remove the excessive presidential powers he had bequeathed himself after his 2010 election, and call a new presidential election.

Some observers do believe that Mr. Yanukovych, faced with Russian pressure, will dig in his heels and fight back (though whether he has the respect of Ukraine's relatively small and undisciplined military is unclear).

"The main problem," says Volodymyr Fesenko, director of Kiev's Centre for Policy Studies, "is that his team doesn't feel embarrassed to apply force and provoke a civil war – it has chosen a non-civilized way of solving the conflict. Yanukovych hasn't made concessions for a long time."

Even those who feel that the president will try to compromise say that this is a dangerous moment: To a large extent, any "compromise" would certainly drive Mr. Yanukovych and his party out of office, so the prospect for civil conflict remains high.

"People are tired of waiting; the [protesters] cannot be there forever. That is why, naturally, everything may go out of control," Viktor Hvozd, the former head of Ukraine's military intelligence agency, wrote in his blog this week. "This is a no-win situation: the authorities do not have power and resources for resolving the situation in a violent manner, while the opposition does not have leverage over the authorities. So far it is the actions of the West that have held the authorities from radical actions, and at first sight it seems to have all stabilized. But actually the volcano that is sleeping may wake up any second."

It is an open question as to whether Mr. Putin would allow Ukraine to slide into open conflict, which in many ways would be a proxy battle between Russian interests and European and U.S. interests.

Even among his own MPs, there is a tangible sense that the current Yanukovych presidency cannot stay in place, at least without major reforms: Whether violently or through negotiated agreement, it will face a challenge to its existence.

"I believe that in the long run, Yanukovich is done," says Taras Berezovets, a veteran Ukrainian election-campaign manager who now runs the Kiev think tank Politech. "He can prolong his agony, but due to these protests, in the long run democracy will win; the question is when."