Ukrainian opposition leaders urged a continuation of the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution to force President Viktor Yanukovych to reverse a decision to snub the European Union in favor of Russia.
Boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko, leader of the UDAR party, called for continued demonstrations after more than 100,000 people marched yesterday through the capital, Kiev. Jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on her website that she’d started a hunger strike. The Interfax news service reported some clashes between protesters and police as temperatures dropped below freezing and snow began to fall.
Tensions have been rising since the government halted preparations for a free-trade agreement with the EU on Nov. 21, saying it wanted to focus on reviving trade with Russia and other ex-Soviet states. Protesters have since poured into Kiev’s Independence Square, the focal point of Orange Revolution protests that overturned a Yanukovych presidential election victory the opposition said was marred by corruption and fraud.
“We should gather every day,” Klitschko said in remarks broadcast by Ukraine’s Channel 5. “We should press the authorities to sign the deal.”
Hours after opposition leaders including Arseniy Yatsenyuk led a march through Kiev, Tymoshenko announced her second hunger strike since receiving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office that she says is designed to keep her out of politics.
“Do not step back -- do not let them ruin our lives,” she said in a statement. “Go ahead and get the victory! Should Yanukovych fail to sign the agreement with the EU, sweep him out of Ukraine in a peaceful and constitutional way. Do not stop.”
While Interfax reported minor clashes between demonstrators and police, Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko said in a statement on the ministry’s website that force won’t be used against peaceful protesters.
“I’ve instructed the police and special forces not to react to provocations,” he said. “The only exclusion was when police were attacked and they had to protect themselves.”
Police on the scene yesterday estimated the crowd at 110,000 at noon, with demonstrators erecting several dozen tents. Pro-EU rallies also took place in other cities, including Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Lviv, where at least 10,000 people gathered, Interfax reported.
Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok, who heads the right-wing Svoboda party, led a march to the government building today. Opposition groups, which lack a parliamentary majority, registered a no-confidence bill in the government, according to a statement on Tymoshenko’s party website.
“We’ve been coming since Friday,” 20-year-old Nika Rassadina said today as she stood on Independence Square with 20 fellow students. “European values mean you see yourself as a part of the society in which you live and you feel personally responsible for what’s going on.”
Premier Mykola Azarov said yesterday in an interview with Russia’s Channel One that he wasn’t “afraid of” protests. The authorities will look into how the demonstrations are being financed, he said, according to a transcript on the channel’s website. Darka Chepak, Yanukovych’s spokeswoman, didn’t answer calls to her mobile phone.
The protests underscore a long-standing dispute over where Ukraine belongs between its more pro-EU west and the Russian-speaking east and south. The EU and Russia each buy about a quarter of Ukrainian exports and have been jostling over relations with the nation of 45 million, the former Soviet Union’s second-most populous and a crucial energy transit route.
European governments have urged Ukraine to sign association and free-trade agreements at a Nov. 28-29 summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas, threatened trade measures if the deal went forward, offering membership in its customs union as an alternative.
The two sides accused each other of blackmail, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the EU is encouraging protests.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Nov. 23 that Russia too often views European overtures toward its eastern neighbors for tighter political and economic ties as “directed against Russia.” She’ll address the issue with Putin “at the next opportunity,” she said in her weekly podcast.
The EU is “pressuring and blackmailing” Ukraine to reverse the Nov. 21 decision, Putin said Nov. 22 in St. Petersburg. The Black Sea nation is crucial to Putin’s ambition to set up a trading area to emulate the Brussels-centered bloc.
The cost to insure Ukrainian debt against non-payment for five years using credit-default swaps, which jumped after the government said it was scrapping the EU talks, fell to 926 basis points, the world’s third-highest after Argentina and Venezuela, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The yield on the government’s dollar bond due 2023 was down 13 basis points, or 0.13 percentage point, at 9.55 percent.
“Recent events suggest an increasing probability of securing a trade deal with Russia,” Citigroup Inc. analyst Ivan Tchakarov said today in an e-mailed note.
While Yanukovych reiterated on Nov. 21 that his country’s goal is European integration, lawmakers repeatedly failed to pass a bill to allow Tymoshenko to travel abroad for medical treatment, a key EU condition for the trade accord to proceed.
Backing for EU membership is 58 percent, according to a poll of 1,000 people this month by researcher IFAK Institut GmbH & Co. It gave no margin of error.
The door “remains open” for intensified relations between the EU and Ukraine, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters today in Berlin.