Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians protested in the streets of the capital as the opposition maintained pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych after he backed off from a European integration accord.
Speculation Yanukovych is preparing to sign up to a Russian-led economic bloc helped fire up the crowds after as many as half a million people flooded the city last weekend, incensed by clashes with baton-wielding riot police.
Protest tents at the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution have extended into a third week as Russia and the 28-member European Union battle over the future of Ukraine, a key east-west transit route. Yanukovych, whose government is searching for $10 billion to avoid a possible default, last week met Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposed the EU deal.
“The turnout allows the opposition to continue pressing Yanukovych and his government,” said Olexiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy. “The public mood is building. The question is whether Yanukovych will listen. He doesn’t want to resign -- he doesn’t even want to react or look for possible compromise.”
Protesters have blockaded Independence Square with scrap wood, metal and barbed wire and are picketing official buildings to demand snap elections and punishment of security officials after 400 people were injured in clashes when police broke up a demonstration last weekend. Protesters today tore down a 6.8 meter statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Opposition leaders told the crowds they’d met their goal of 1 million people and urged groups of 30,000 to set up camps near buildings including the presidential administration, which is surrounded by riot police with shields and protective helmets.
The Interior Ministry estimated the turnout at more than 100,000. RBC-Ukraine reported more than 500,000 people attended the rally, while Ukraine’s business news wire Ukraynski Novyny said about 600,000 people were on the capital’s streets today.
European Commission President Jose Barroso spoke to Yanukovych by phone to urge restraint and a political solution to the situation, his office said today. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will visit Kiev in the coming days to try to help defuse the crisis.
The opposition has “credible” information that Yanukovych plans to impose a state of emergency as part of a deal to get economic and political support from Russia, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said today.
“We ask our European and western partners not to allow this president to crack down on democracy,” he said.
Premier Mykola Azarov’s cabinet survived a no-confidence vote last week and accuses demonstrators of starting trouble. The protests are the largest since the Orange Revolution in which pro-Western opposition forces came to power after a presidential victory by Yanukovych was overturned.
As protesters marched from the square they stuck stickers urging peaceful demonstrations on buses stationed by police to block side-streets. Some began pitching tents outside the government’s headquarters.
Sergei Pronin, a 50-year-old veteran of the Soviet Union’s 10-year war in Afghanistan, said he’d joined other former soldiers to serve as a barrier between demonstrators and police after the recent violence.
As the protests escalate, First Deputy Premier Serhiy Arbuzov voiced concern over Ukraine’s economy, which is stuck in its third recession since 2008 after steel prices declined.
Foreign reserves fell more than economists forecast last month. The stockpile has plunged more than $6 billion in the last year and stood at $18.79 billion on Nov. 30, the lowest level since 2006. The government has repeatedly rejected International Monetary Fund bailout terms.
The nation needs at least $10 billion in loans to improve its balance of payments and avoid the risk of a default, the Interfax news service cited Arbuzov as saying yesterday.
Yanukovych, who last month rejected EU association and free-trade pacts in favor of mending trade ties with Russia, visited Beijing and Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi this week in search of financial aid.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Russia and Ukraine were now “significantly” closer in energy negotiations after the meeting. Russia has said it would offer Ukraine cheaper natural gas if Ukraine signs up to a Customs Union intended to rival the EU.
While Putin and Yanukovych denied that they’d discussed membership of the customs union, Yatsenyuk says Yanukovych plans to sign up at a meeting Dec. 17, accusing him of “selling” Ukraine.
After the EU criticized Putin for pressuring Yanukovych, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 6 accused Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, of “interference in internal affairs.” Westerwelle met world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, the other main Ukrainian opposition leader, and accompanied him to Independence Square on Dec. 4.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and a group of conservative parties in the EU Parliament aim to boost support for Klitschko, Der Spiegel reported, without saying where it got the information. Klitschko will attend a meeting of the European People’s Party in mid-December and make a public appearance with Merkel, Spiegel said.
As balloons in the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag floated over Independence Square, people danced to songs. Yury Muzychuk, 55, head of a management-consulting company in the western city of Lviv, said that people won’t give up.
“We can’t become cattle stuck in a depressed mood and ruled for decades by the Yanukovych dynasty,” he said. “For us the main thing isn’t joining the EU, it’s about adopting normal democratic standards.”