Ukraine Braces for Protest Surge as Leader Returns Home

Ukrainian anti-government activists are mobilizing for a rally to top the half-million people who flooded Kiev last weekend as President Viktor Yanukovych returns from China and Russia with no aid for the shrinking economy.

As demonstrations enter a 17th day, opposition leaders including jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko urged supporters to gather tomorrow at noon in the capital, with the goal of attracting as many as one million people. Opposition demands include snap presidential and parliamentary elections.

Protesters evoking the 2004 Orange Revolution are digging in after police violence heightened anger at Yanukovych’s snub of a European trade accord last month in favor of closer Russian ties. Having defeated a no-confidence motion Dec. 3, Premier Mykola Azarov and his cabinet have accused demonstrators of instigating disturbances, with some being arrested. Yanukovych hasn’t spoken about the protests since leaving for China.

“It’s important for the opposition to continue to build momentum because the moment global attention fades, the authorities will have a freer hand to crack down,” Emmet Tuohy, an analyst with the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia, said yesterday.

Police Crackdown

Protests last weekend were marred by violence as baton-wielding riot police were deployed to Independence Square, where videos showed them beating demonstrators. More than 400 people were injured as the crackdown spread and 14 remain missing, according to Channel 5 television.

Crowds remained on the streets of Kiev and Independence Square, which protesters have blockaded with scrap metal, wood and barbed wire and where some camp out all night in tents. Activists are promoting the latest rally via Facebook under the slogan: “there must be more of us than last Sunday!” Turnout then was estimated by organizers at about 500,000.

“All of our friends and acquaintances have promised to be here with their families,” Nikolai, a 60-year-old pensioner who declined to give his last name, said yesterday. “Yanukovych won’t risk another forceful crackdown. If he does, there’ll be 2 million people the next day.”

Azarov, who’s vowed to purge his cabinet of those who made “mistakes,” has labeled some protesters as “extremists.” Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who refuses to resign, said 14 suspects had been identified, with two detained Dec. 5.

Protest Right

Protests continued yesterday at the prosecutor general’s office in central Kiev, with demonstrators demanding the release of an additional nine people who were detained after the clashes with police. People are also still picketing the government building and the presidential administration, while Interfax reported today that police have begun guarding a TV center.

“The right of peaceful protest must be respected,” Victoria Nuland, U.S. assistant secretary of state, said yesterday in Tbilisi, Georgia. “Violence or the threat of violence is impermissible in a democratic state. Those responsible for the violence must be brought to justice and the detainees released. Six days have gone by with no accountability.”

While Azarov indicated yesterday evening in a television interview that the authorities are ready to sanction an independent commission to investigate the violence, he said protesters must first end their blockades of official buildings.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is in Kiev to show his support for the opposition movement.

“I wish them to be patient -- to stand up for their rights over the long term,” he said today. “This isn’t a one- or two-day process.”

China, Russia

Yanukovych is returning from China after a stop in Russia, which opposed his plans to sign European Union association and free-trade pacts and is offering membership of its customs union instead.

While Yanukovych said the economy, which is mired in its third recession since 2008, will benefit from $8 billion in Chinese investment, he didn’t announce any financial aid having repeatedly rejected International Monetary Fund bailout terms.

Ukraine’s 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 Ukrainian leader met Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The two sides are “significantly” closer in talks over natural gas prices, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said today by phone. They didn’t discuss the customs union, he said.

Moscow Deal?

Yanukovych plans to sign a strategic cooperation treaty with Russia at a meeting in Moscow on Dec. 17, Interfax cited opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk as saying today in Kiev. The pact envisages Ukraine joining the Customs Union, he said.

After the EU criticized Putin for pressuring Yanukovych to snub the 28-member bloc, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday accused Germany’s Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, of “interference in internal affairs.” Westerwelle met Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, world heavyweight boxing champion, and accompanied him to Independence Square.

Yanukovych said yesterday on his website that he’d canceled a trip to Malta next week to focus on “domestic political issues.” The president, whose core support is the country’s Russian-speaking east, probably won’t compromise until the unrest reaches his heartland, according to Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.

Forcing Concessions

“The opposition probably hopes that a massive turnout on Sunday will unnerve the authorities, forcing them to capitulate or offer major concessions,” he said by e-mail from London. “But getting more people from Kiev and western Ukraine to demonstrate won’t do it -– Yanukovych will only be impressed if the east also starts to back the EU option.”

As well as demanding new elections, opposition leaders want Tymoshenko released from her seven-year prison sentence. The ex-premier, who helped lead the Orange Revolution, ended a 12-day hunger strike, her daughter, Eugenia, said yesterday.

As snow showers fell on Independence Square, protesters lined up for mulled wine and dried their boots on makeshift fires in empty oil barrels. Ukraine’s weather center issued a storm warning for Kiev and the surrounding area on its website, predicting winds of 15-20 meters per second, blizzards and sleet at the weekend.

Paying little attention to the forecast, Anna Shklerova, a 19 year-old student, said yesterday that she wants people to come out onto the streets to fight for the country’s future.

“I hope there’ll be enough protesters so our government finally gets it,” she said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.