Ukraine’s opposition invited anti-government protesters to join a new political movement to keep pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych for choosing $15 billion of Russian aid over a European accord.
The Maidan movement, which takes its name from the Ukrainian word for a central public square, will push for “a new constitution and removal of corrupt judges and prosecutors,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.
Ukraine’s opposition is looking to preserve momentum after occupying Independence Square in Kiev for month. Half a million people flocked to the square after students were beaten in a police crackdown on Nov. 30, while the crowd has thinned before the winter holidays. As many as 70,000 people turned out for the fifth consecutive Sunday rally yesterday, according to the RBC news service, while the BBC estimated the crowd at 100,000.
“We’ll fight further,” Vitali Klitschko, the former world heavyweight boxing champion who has emerged as the most popular figure in the opposition, said yesterday. “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.”
Yanukovych met a demand from the opposition today for the first time, signing a law that annuls charges against protesters. He has resisted calls to step down, dismiss the cabinet and call early elections. The next presidential election is scheduled for March 2015.
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 keeping the movement alive 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.
Yanukovych supporters wrapped up what they’d called an “endless demonstration” on a square by the parliament building to celebrate the holidays at home and called on the opposition to do the same, according to a statement on the website of the president’s party.
At the anti-government 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.” Protest organizers promised a New Year’s party and concert on Independence Square for those who stayed.
“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, about 550 kilometers (342 miles) west of Kiev. “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.”
Since obtaining the Russian aid, the government has vowed to raise social spending such as minimum wages and child benefits, and to increase public paychecks three times next year. Yanukovych trails opposition leaders including Klitschko in polls.
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 Russian opposition organizer, spoke at yesterday’s rally in Kiev.
Ukraine’s opposition parties, lacking a majority in parliament, failed to oust Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet with a no-confidence motion. They can next initiate a similar vote in February, which may spark further protests, Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center in 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.”
Ukraine, a country of 45 million people and 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 2023 stayed little changed at 9.15 percent as of 6:44 p.m. today in Kiev, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Five-year credit default swaps, the cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt against non-payment, rose to 800.93 from 798.61 on Dec. 20.
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 in a televised speech Dec. 17. At the same time, he said his government was 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.
Azarov plans to travel to Moscow tomorrow to meet with Putin as well as presidents from Kazakhstan and Belarus, according to a statement on the Ukrainian government’s website. Azarov will also meet his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.
“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 from the public. He’d lose to Klitschko or Yatsenyuk, according to a poll of 2,011 eligible voters conducted Nov. 9-20 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. The margin of error was 2.8 percentage points. The incumbent would get 21.6 percent in a run-off vote, while Klitschko’s would win with 35.2 percent.