Opponents of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych vowed to repeat a march on his residence near Kiev as they seek to escalate demands to dismiss the government a month after it snubbed a trade pact with the European Union.
About 1,000 people drove or marched 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the nearest metro station to Yanukovych’s home today, the opposition Svoboda party said on its website. Protest leaders spoke at a rally 300 meters from the fence that surrounds the president’s private residence. Police prevented people from getting closer, Channel 5 television showed.
Yanukovych, 63, is trying to ride out the biggest protests in almost a decade until the next presidential election in March 2015. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s government shelved an association agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia last month, setting off rallies that swelled to hundreds of thousands after activists were beaten in a police crackdown Nov. 30.
“We’re here so Yanukovych will listen to our demands,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, said by the president’s residence, calling to remove the government and punish the police. “If he doesn’t hear us, our Sunday visit will turn into a regular tour and we’ll invite all 45 million” Ukrainians to the protest, he said.
Cars left Yanukovych’s residence for the home of Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainska Pravda reported rallies outside the homes of Azarov and the parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Rybak.
At Independence Square in central Kiev, about 50,000 people listened to speeches by opposition leaders, according to Ukrainski Novyny newswire’s estimates. Olha Bilyk, spokeswoman for the Kiev police, didn’t answer her mobile phone today.
Yanukovych’s political opponents, including Tymoshenko, supported today’s rally after a journalist active in anti-presidential protests was dragged from her car and beaten Dec. 25. Vitali Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, renewed calls for a nationwide strike, asking supporters to skip work after Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated Jan. 7.
With numbers waning, opposition leaders are trying to maintain momentum for a New Year’s rally, promising with concerts, fireworks and food at Independence Square. One of the main goals is “to keep Maidan going,” Yatsenyuk said, referring to Independence square by its popular name.
“I want changes for the better, I want Yanukovych and Azarov to get lost,” said Roman, 22, a shipbuilder from Sevastopol in Crimea, who asked not to disclose his last name. “While Yanukovych is ruling the country, we’ll be at Maidan.”
Yanukovych has resisted calls to step down, dismiss the government or allow early parliamentary elections. Allegations of fraud in Yanukovych’s runoff win in the 2004 presidential election prompted street protests known as the Orange Revolution, which ultimately prompted the Supreme Court to overturn his victory.
Ukraine’s government is trying to convince voters that Putin’s offer of $15 billion in loans and a 30 percent discount on natural gas will be more beneficial than a deal with the EU.
The International Monetary Fund would have demanded conditions including a “deep devaluation” of the currency before providing aid as part of the EU offer, Azarov said in televised comments Dec. 27. Ukraine’s economy this year entered a third recession since 2008.
Industrial consumers will get a 10 percent cut in natural gas prices in the first quarter of next year, with reductions continuing each quarter in 2014, according to the government. That may benefit companies including Metinvest, Ukraine’s largest steelmaker, and ArcelorMittal Kryvyi Rih.
The yield on Ukraine’s dollar-denominated Eurobonds due in 2023 fell to 9.16 percent on Dec. 27 from as high as 10.78 percent on Dec. 9 after Yanukovych won financial backing from Russia. That prompted Standard & Poor’s to upgrade the outlook on Ukraine’s credit rating to stable from negative after cutting it to the same level as Greece last month.
While Yanukovych would draw the most support among potential presidential candidates now, he wouldn’t avoid a runoff, according to a survey of 2,010 eligible voters conducted Dec. 20-24 by the Kiev Razumkov Center and the Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
The incumbent would lose in a runoff to Klitschko, or Yatsenyuk, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.
“We have no right to leave Maidan,” Yatsenyuk said at the protest today. “We are getting ready for victory in the next presidential elections.”