Ukrainian police clashed with demonstrators after hundreds of thousands of people protested against President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a deal bringing the former Soviet state closer to the European Union.
A throng estimated by the opposition at about half a million Ukrainians converged on central Kiev today to hear boxing champion Vitali Klitschko call for a new government. Police spokeswoman Olha Bilyk, who declined to estimate the crowd size, said 100 police officers were injured when they clashed with a group of young people who stormed the presidential administration building.
The protests gripping the country from Lviv to Kharkiv mark the biggest political crisis in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution, in which an opposition group including jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko overturned a presidential election initially won by Yanukovych. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a lawmaker from Tymoshenko’s party, said protesters would demonstrate at Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet offices with the goal of forcing out the president.
“Our first and main political demand for tomorrow: the government’s resignation,” Yatsenyuk said. “Our main task is Yanukovych’s resignation. But the first step is the resignation of Azarov’s government.”
About 40 people were injured yesterday when Ukrainian police broke up a rally on Independence Square after midnight. As of 6 p.m. in Kiev today, 53 people had required medical aid, the city government said in a statement.
Protests began on Nov. 21 when Yanukovych suspended progress toward an association agreement with the EU, opting instead to strengthen ties with Russia. They intensified this weekend after the president failed to reconsider the deal at an Nov. 28-29 EU summit in Vilnius and the first clashes broke out.
Ukraine’s 2023 government bonds fell on Nov. 29, sending the yield up 11 basis points, or 0.11 percentage point, to to 9.966 percent, the highest level since Nov. 14, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The cost to insure the country’s debt against non-payment using credit-default swaps was unchanged at 987 basis points, leaving the Black Sea state the world’s fourth-riskiest nation behind Argentina, Venezuela and Cyprus.
Opposition politician Oleh Tyahnybok called today for a nationwide strike. Those leading demonstrations urged people to keep rallies peaceful, and Tyahnybok saying protesters would erect tents on Independence Square in central Kiev. The opposition is convinced that violence by protesters today was orchestrated by the government to justify a crackdown, Yatsenyuk said on television.
Some protesters forced their way inside the mayor’s office in Kiev after requests for a meeting were ignored. They set up temporary headquarters for the demonstrations, television channel 1+1 reported.
Ukrainian parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak called politicians to hold talks tomorrow. Yanukovych said today he still favors “moving toward the EU,” as long as that doesn’t hurt the country economically. Russia, which accounts for about a quarter of Ukraine’s trade, has said an agreement with the EU could harm those relations.
“Our country should integrate with the European nations as an equal partner,” Yanukovych said in today’s speech to mark the 22nd anniversary of a referendum that clinched Ukraine’s independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “I will not allow any serious economic losses and decline of living of standards.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month he doesn’t oppose the EU deal and suggested three-way negotiations. European Commission President Jose Barroso reiterated that the idea of such talks is unacceptable.
Putin’s government may have offered Ukraine $15 billion in loans, debt restructuring and asset purchases to persuade it not to proceed with the EU deal, the Ukrainian magazine Zerkalo Nedeli said. Azarov also said today on Inter television he wanted to agree a new price of gas in two weeks with Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s consumption.
Russia will offer cheaper natural gas to Ukraine if the government in Kiev opts to join the Moscow-led economic bloc, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said in an interview.
“A gas agreement could help relieve Ukraine of a huge problem,” Shuvalov said said in comments cleared Nov. 30 for publication. “We can also give them a loan, but we will not help them without commitments on their part.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged protesters and police to remain peaceful in a statement on NATO’s website. U.S. and EU ambassadors to Ukraine did the same.
“We condemn today’s violence near Bankova and attacks on public buildings and call on all sides to avoid confrontation,” the latter said in a statement on the Facebook page of the EU’s delegation to Ukraine.
In a joint statement, Radek Sikorski and Carl Bildt, the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, repeated that the EU remains prepared to sign the accord and said Ukraine itself must press ahead with transforming its economy to grow closer to the 28-member bloc.
“In the absence of any evidence of economic reform, we will not be drawn into a meaningless bidding war over Ukraine’s future,” they said in the statement.
Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko said the police won’t allow Ukraine to become another Libya or Tunisia, where uprisings toppled governments in recent years.
“If there is call for public disorder, we will react,” the minister said in televised comments today.
Oleksandr Sidorov, 56, an entrepreneur from the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya who’s been protesting in Kiev for eight days, said Yanukovych promised to take Ukraine closer to the EU, then “outrageously cheated” the nation.
“His place is to be hanged on a Christmas tree,” he said.