Ukrainian protesters keep up pressure in Kiev for Yanukovych to resign

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 5:29am


About 100,000 people rallied in the centre of the Ukrainian capital yesterday to demand the president step down as mass anti-government protests entered their second month.

The rallies that have turned Kiev into a giant protest encampment were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych's decision last month to choose ties with Russia over integration with the 28-nation European Union. That deeply angered many Ukrainians, who favour the democratic structures of the West over Russia's autocratic government. After a violent police crackdown on a peaceful rally, the protests turned against Yanukovych himself.

"We will create such a hell for the authorities, that the ground will burn under their feet," said Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the opposition nationalist party Svoboda.

Yanukovych's concessions of releasing some jailed activists and suspending several top officials over the crackdown have failed to end the protests. After several attempts to clear the protesters by force drew condemnation from the West, he now appears set on waiting them out.

But Yanukovych's stance was strengthened this week by a major bailout package from Russia to help Ukraine fend off a possible default. The aid includes a US$15 billion pledge to buy Ukrainian government bonds and a sharp decrease in the price Russia charges Ukraine for natural gas.

The opposition, however, has dismissed the agreements with Russia as a sell-out and insisted that Ukraine's future lies with the European Union.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged the crowd to spend the new year and the following weeks on Kiev's Independence Square to force Yanukovych into calling early presidential and parliamentary elections.

"They think that we will get tired, they think that we will go home," Klitschko said. "This will never dissipate, because we understand that we need to implement reforms and the only way to implement reforms is by changing the leaders."

The movement is also trying to widen opposition support in the east of the country, which remains largely loyal to Yanukovych.

While the protest was smaller than on previous weekends, it was still a strong showing for a movement that has entered its second month in the frigid cold.

However, despite securing support from Western powers and many of Kiev's inhabitants, the protests have failed to deter Yanukovych.

The lack of tangible achievements is wearing down protesters, said Mykhailo Pohrebinsky of the Kiev Centre of Political Research. But it could also push some towards more radical action. "The situation is very dangerous," he said.

Some protesters were growing impatient for signs of a clear strategy. "People are standing here but I don't see any concrete plan, something has to change," said one of the protesters, unemployed Sergei Dutko.

Additional reporting by Reuters