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 bring Ukraine into a Russian-led economic bloc helped fire up crowds yesterday that rivaled demonstrations the previous weekend, when as many as 500,000 people protested against clashes with baton-wielding riot police. Police detained some activists, the opposition Udar party said, after a group of youths demanding a new government tore down a statue of Vladimir Lenin in central Kiev.
People at a tent camp at the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution endured snow and freezing temperatures today as Russia and the 28-member European Union offer diverging paths to Ukraine, the second-most populous former Soviet Republic and a key east-west energy transit route. Yanukovych, whose government is searching for $10 billion to avoid possible default, last week met Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposed the EU deal.
“When protesters put a bigger crowd in the street, they force the regime to make tough decisions,” Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and professor at Columbia University, said yesterday by phone. “But I haven’t seen any indication Yanukovych wants to make major concessions to the crowd on the street.”
With their opposition running into a third week, protesters have blockaded Independence Square with scrap wood, metal and barbed wire. They are also picketing official buildings to demand snap elections and the punishment of security officials after 400 people were injured in clashes when police broke up demonstrations on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
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 was surrounded by policed in riot gear.
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. Yesterday’s turnout was more than 100,000, according to the Interior Ministry. Ukraynski Novyny said about 600,000 people were on the capital’s streets.
As the demonstrations escalate, First Deputy Premier Serhiy Arbuzov voiced concern over Ukraine’s economy, which is stuck in a third recession since 2008 after the global economic crisis triggered a drop in the price of steel, a vital export.
Foreign reserves have 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.
Ukraine 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 Dec. 7. That underscores years of economic and political mismanagement in Ukraine that trumps the EU-Russia debate, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a political analyst at IHS Global Insight.
“The country’s current troubles are not a result of pro-or anti-EU policy choices,” she said. Instead, they are due to “years of economic mismanagement, populist economic policies both by current and previous governments, and failure to deal with underlying issues like monopolistic economic structures, corruption, and a politically dependent judiciary.”
Yanukovych, who last month rejected EU association and free-trade pacts in favor of bolstering trade ties with Russia, visited Beijing and Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi last week in search for financial aid and cheaper energy prices.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia and Ukraine were now “significantly” closer in negotiating positions over natural gas after the meeting. Russia has said it would offer Ukraine cheaper natural gas if the country of 45 million people signs up to a Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus that Putin is planning.
While Putin and Yanukovych denied that they’d discussed membership of the Customs Union, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Yanukovych plans to sign up at a Dec. 17 meeting in Moscow, accusing him of “selling” Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Barroso spoke to Yanukovych by phone to urge restraint and a political solution to the situation, his office said yesterday. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will visit Kiev in the coming days to try to help defuse the crisis, according to a statement.
“Even more obvious that Ukraine needs a round table agreement to get out of its crisis,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt posted on his Twitter account, saying that going without one would create a “risk of violence and repression.”
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, Yatsenyuk said yesterday.
“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. It says demonstrators started the trouble with police. Ukraine’s security service said yesterday in a statement it had opened a criminal investigation into “certain politicians” who sought to “seize power.”
As demonstrators marched from the square, they stuck stickers calling for peaceful protests on buses used by police to barricade 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.
After the EU criticized Putin for pressuring Yanukovych, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Dec. 6 accused German 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. Klitschko will attend a meeting of the European People’s Party in mid-December and make a public appearance with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Der Spiegel reported.
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 the protesters 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.”