Ukraine’s opposition urged protesters at a fifth straight Sunday rally to join its new political movement and keep pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych for accepting a $15 billion Russian bailout over European integration.
Opposition leaders today announced the creation of the Maidan political movement, using the Ukrainian word for public square, that will target “a new constitution and removal of corrupt judges and prosecutors,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.
Anti-government protesters have occupied Independence Square in the capital, Kiev, for a month as Yanukovych drew out of a planned trade and political pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia. A police crackdown on Nov. 30 led half a million people to the square. A crowd of 70,000 gathered today, RBC news service reported.
“We’ll fight further,” said Vitali Klitschko, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who has emerged as the most popular figure in the opposition. “We will not go away. We’ll stay and we’ll celebrate New year at Maidan, won’t we? We’ll celebrate Christmas with our families at Maidan, won’t we? We will stay here.”
Ukraine celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7, in accordance with the Orthodox calendar. The holiday, suppressed during the Soviet era and celebrated at church or with family, threatens to draw protesters home. Luring them back and maintaining momentum through the cold months will be a challenge for the opposition, Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight in London, said by e-mail.
In the protest camp, people set up Christmas trees decorated with political slogans. A nutcracker toy on one held a sign saying: “Demand No. 1 -- Yanukovych’s dismissal.”
“I’ll be here for the New Year and for Christmas I’ll go home,” said Lyubov Kishchuk, a 36 year-old nurse and mother of three from the Ivano-Frankivsk region. “But I spoke to the guys who have tents here from Kolomya, Lviv, Ternopil. They’re not going to dismantle their tents and they will celebrate here. Maidan will stay until spring. People aren’t going to take down the tents and we will stay to the victory.”
Russian aid will strengthen Yanukovych’s hand unless the opposition can broaden its focus from the EU accord and forcing Yanukovych to resign, Gevorgyan said.
“At least in the short term, the Ukrainian authorities will be able to stabilize the economy, and this will only weaken the opposition’s position,” she said. “The most important challenge will be for the opposition staying unified and agreeing on a single candidate to challenge Yanukovych.”
Yanukovych has resisted calls to step down, dismiss the Cabinet and call early elections. The next presidential election is scheduled for March 2015.
The leader, who secured a price discount on natural gas from Russia along with the bailout last week, has accused his opponents of being too “ambitious.” He also warned Europe and the U.S. against meddling in Ukraine’s domestic affairs, criticism echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
EU diplomatic chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy were among the Western politicians and diplomats who mingled with protesters on Independence Square in a show of support. Ilya Yashin, a Russia’s opposition organizer, spoke at today’s rally in Kiev.
Ukraine’s opposition parties, lacking a majority in parliament, have failed to push through a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet. They can next initiate a similar vote in February, which may spark further protests, Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in capital Kiev, said yesterday by e-mail.
“It’s impossible to bring a huge number of people every Sunday, especially as holidays are coming, but the political crisis isn’t over,” Fesenko said. “The opposition groups should work out their tactics for a continued fight as everyone needs to prepare for a long standoff with the authorities until the next presidential election.”
The country of 45 million people, a key transit route for Russian gas exports to the EU, turned to its former Soviet ally while struggling with its third recession since 2008 and dwindling foreign reserves.
Russia bought $3 billion of two-year Ukrainian government bonds on Dec. 20. The proceeds will be spent to pay debt, salaries, pensions, and social benefits, according to Azarov. An additional $12 billion of bonds will be acquired by the end of next year, Putin said Dec. 17.
The yield on Ukraine’s government bonds due 2013 were little changed at 9.11 percent on Dec. 20 from the previous day, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Five-year credit default swaps, the cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt against non-payment fell 7 basis points to 813.
The president, who lost a bid for office to pro-EU candidate Viktor Yushchenko after mass protests in 2004, reiterated Ukraine’s commitment to European integration, according to televised comments Dec. 19 speech. At the same time, he said his government is still studying a proposal to adhere to “some provisions” of a Russia-led customs union that includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz said he doesn’t expect any further moves by Yanukovych toward the EU. The EU, which has said “the door is open for Ukraine,” has ruled out an association agreement if the country joins the Russia-led trade group. Russia has called for three-way talks with Ukraine and the EU to forge a compromise.
Yanukovych plans to travel to Moscow this week to meet with Putin as well as counterparts from Kazakhstan and Belarus in the customs union, Itar-Tass reported yesterday, citing Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin.
“Ukraine’s government is in a much stronger position with the Russian help,” Gevorgyan said.
Yanukovych said Dec. 19 that he won’t run for re-election without pre-campaign support among the population. About 15,000 pro-government supporters gathered Dec. 15 in Mariyinskyi park near the parliament building, according to police estimates.
Yanukovych would lose to Klitschko or Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, according to a poll of 2,011 eligible voters conducted Nov. 9-20 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. The margin of error is 2.8 percent. The incumbent would get 21.6 percent in a run-off vote, while Klitschko’s would win with 35.2 percent.
“We are here until Yanukovych hears voices of millions,” Oleksandr Turchynov, a Tymoshenko ally, said at today’s rally.