Ukraine Braces for Protests as West Steps Up Pressure

Competing demonstrations of the anti-government camp and supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych took place in Kiev today as the U.S. and the European Union ratcheted up pressure on the administration.

Hundreds of thousands turned out, with U.S. senators and European Parliament members addressing the anti-government protesters, while the pro-Yanukovych crowd listened to ruling-party lawmakers. No violent incidents were reported as of 6 p.m.

Protests began last month after the government pulled out of a planned co-operation pact with the EU in favor of closer Russia ties and intensified after a police crackdown. Talks two days ago between the sides failed to ease the crisis in the country of 45 million, a key transit region for Russian gas going to western Europe. Yanukovych will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow Dec. 17 to discuss a trade deal.

“Everything is built on bribes and the violation of laws,” Oksana Chernochuk, 47, a financial director of Ukrainian carmaker Bogdan Corp, said in an interview at the anti-government rally. “I have a seven-year-old child; I am here for him and for myself.”

Between 150,000 and 200,000 pro-EU anti-Yanukovych demonstrators gathered at Independence Square, Interfax news service reported. Police estimated the crowd at more than 30,000 as of 4 p.m. local time, spokeswoman Olha Bilyk said by phone. A pro-government rally at the parliament building drew more than 15,000 people, she said.

‘Weakening Yanukovych’

Police presence has been limited this weekend and security forces have pulled back since an attempt to clear demonstrators off Independence Square last week. The next two nights will be critical, said Olexiy Haran, professor of comparative politics at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy.

“People on the streets are weakening Yanukovych’s position in talks with Putin,” Haran said in a phone interview. “That’s why there are fears he may use force to disperse protests, including a state of emergency.”

The U.S. threatened to impose trade sanctions on Ukraine over the crackdown and European lawmakers urged the 28-nation bloc to consider steps against Russia. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said today on his Twitter Inc. account that the Ukrainian government’s “words and deeds” are “further and further apart” on the EU deal.

‘Wide Open’

Yet the EU stands by its offer.

“The door is wide open for Ukraine to sign association and free trade agreement with EU. It’s ready. Any time,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on his Twitter Inc. account.

U.S. Senator John McCain and Senator Chris Murphy, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs met opposition leaders addressed the anti-government rally. McCain also met the head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, the Zerkalo newspaper reported.

“Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better,” said McCain. “The free world is with you. America is with you. I am with you.”

The flurry of Western diplomatic activity in past days drew Moscow’s ire.

“We are surprised by the almost hysterical reaction” of the West “to the sovereign decision of Ukraine’s legitimate authorities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as cited by Russia Today television.

‘Be Friends’

Ukraine’s largest protests in almost a decade are entering a fourth week. Yanukovych’s supporters were fewer and more subdued than those at the anti-government rally. Flanked by orderly lines of wood-fired military trailers dispensing stew, the pro-government rally took place in a park on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River that divides Kiev.

“We want to be friends with Russia,” said Kyrylo Smyrnov, 32, a construction worker from the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol, holding a flag displaying a red star and the communists’ hammer-and-sickle symbol. “We don’t want to be slaves under Poland and Germany. If Yanukovych will push us to the EU, we will support another person.”

Crowds at the anti-government rally about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) away, shouted “Resign! Resign” and “Together we are Strong!”

“They squeezed everything from business and now all that is left are the ordinary people,” said Oleksandr Ivanyshyn, 45, a businessman from Lviv. “Refusal to sign the EU deal and use of force against the protest was the last straw.”

Barricades Rebuilt

Anti-government protesters rebuilt barricades around the square that were removed by police last week. Fortifications include barbed wire, snow-filled sacks reinforced with logs, lumber and old tires. Alcohol is banned on the square by the organizers.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, told reporters yesterday that the opposition is just a “few votes” short of forcing a new no-confidence vote against the cabinet of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, 64. A similar motion failed on Dec. 3.

“We will do everything possible to dismiss the government either through a no-confidence vote or by pressing Azarov to sign a letter of resignation,” he told protesters today.

Yanukovych Concessions

Yanukovych made some concessions, proposing an amnesty for some detained activists and firing four officials including the head of the Kiev city administration, Oleksandr Popov. The four are under house arrest for suspicion of ordering the use of force against protesters on Nov. 30, prosecutors said.

This isn’t enough for the opposition, which wants the government’s dismissal and the punishment of those responsible for violence against protesters.

Ukrainian assets gained last Friday as the government said it will sign an accord next week to regulate trade relations with Russia through 2015. The meeting in two days shows Russia’s responsible attitude to Ukraine and the importance of normalizing the situation, Mikhail Zurabov, Russia’s Ambassador to Ukraine, told Radio Svododa.

Borys Tarasyuk, an opposition lawmaker, told the anti-government rally today that another protest is planned for Dec. 17 as a show of strength aimed at preventing Yanukovych from signing the Russian customs union deal.

Ukraine’s consideration of the EU deal prompted Russian bans on exports such as chocolate. Yanukovych warned on Dec. 13 that the protests are hurting the country’s economy, going through its third recession since 2008, with foreign-currency reserves at a seven-year low.

The president said Dec. 10 that he intends to sign the EU accord at a March meeting and restart talks with the Washington-based IMF if “conditions are acceptable.” Ukraine is seeking 20 billion euros ($27.4 billion) in financing from the EU, Azarov said Dec. 11.

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