Pro-West Ukrainians clash with police over EU deal
Pro-Western Ukrainians on Monday scuffled with police near the government seat in Kiev in a second day of major protests against a decision to scrap a key pact with the European Union.
Up to 1,000 protesters rallied outside government headquarters to force President Viktor Yanukovych to sign a broad political and trade agreement with the EU this week, and demanding the government’s resignation.
Some attempted to enter the government building but were forced back by riot police with tear gas.
Protest leaders said the attempted storming of the government building – for the second time in two days – was the work of outside troublemakers.
“Despite the fact that the rally is peaceful unknown individuals staged a provocation which led to scuffles with police,” the UDAR (Punch) opposition party said in a statement.
But they vowed to keep up the pressure.
“We will continue our protests until the agreement is signed,” world boxing champion and UDAR leader Vitali Klitschko told the crowd.
“We will demand the government annul its decision and resign.”
A day earlier, tens of thousands swarmed central Kiev in the biggest rally since the 2004 Orange Revolution overturned a rigged presidential poll and forced a new ballot in the ex-Soviet state.
Waving flags, letting off smoke bombs and shouting “revolution!” some protesters on Sunday also attempted to storm the government headquarters but were forced back by police.
The opposition had by Monday set up around 20 tents on European Square in central Kiev and vowed to remain there until Yanukovych signs the agreement.
“People took to the streets to defend Ukraine’s European choice,” protester Natalia Yagoda said.
In a bid to claim immunity from arrest, protesters put up signs on some of the tents turning them into makeshift lawmakers’ offices.
Last week the government unexpectedly announced it was halting all preparations to sign the Association Agreement, seen as a first step toward EU membership that would have marked a historic break by Ukraine from the Kremlin.
The decision came after the Ukrainian parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a key EU condition for Ukraine to sign the agreement.
The government cited “national security” for its decision, but faced accusations from the West that it had caved into pressure from Moscow.
In turn Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has repeatedly threatened Ukraine with retaliation if Kiev signed the deal, accused the EU of “blackmailing” Ukraine.
‘Nothing more important than power’
The Kremlin wants Ukraine to be part of its Customs Union which also includes ex-Soviet Belarus and Kazakshtan.
Linguistic and historic fault lines divide Ukraine into the Kremlin-friendly Russian-speaking east and the fervently nationalistic Ukrainian-speaking west, and Yanukovych’s decision to put the negotiations on ice is expected to once again polarise the nation.
While many pro-Western Ukrainians protested the government’s decision, others took to the streets to defend Ukraine’s ties with historical master Russia.
Police put attendance at the main rally on Sunday at around 50,000 people. The opposition gave a higher estimate, saying more than 100,000 turned out.
The jailed Tymoshenko issued a statement read at the Sunday rally by her daughter Eugenia urging people to stay on the streets and “force Yanukovych to change his humiliating decision.”
Shortly after losing to Yanukovych in a poll in 2010, the former prime minister was sentenced to seven years in jail on abuse of power charges seen by the West as politically motivated.
The government explained its decision to drop the agreement as the result of economic hardship.
Ukraine’s economy is in tatters, with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov blaming the IMF for the failed deal, saying the tough conditions it was imposing for a new loan were the “last straw.”
But many observers say Yanukovych’s fear for his personal future trumped his concerns over the country’s direction.
Analysts believe Yanukovych has no interest in freeing his arch-enemy Tymoshenko ahead of 2015 presidential elections.
The government’s about-face came after Yanukovych this month travelled to Moscow for secret talks with Putin.
“For Yanukovych and all of his eastern neighbours there’s nothing more important that staying in power,” Russian business daily Vedomosti said in an editorial Monday. “Yanukovych does not care what and which union Ukraine will be part of if he is not at the helm of it.”