20,000 protest in Kiev as rivals vow to oust Ukrainian president
Kiev turnout lower than previous rallies but poll says Yanukovych would lose election if held now
About 20,000 people protested in the centre of Ukraine's capital yesterday while opposition supporters in hundreds of cars were met by police as they headed for President Viktor Yanukovych's residence just outside Kiev.
The turnout in Kiev's Independence square, or the Maidan, was markedly lower than at previous rallies, which had attracted hundreds of thousands.
Tacitly acknowledging that street protests would not topple Yanukovych, one of his leading rivals told demonstrators that the opposition would steer the country back towards Europe after winning the next election in 2015.
"We are preparing to win the presidential elections," said Arseny Yatsenyuk, leader of the opposition Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.
"We are building a team ... that will be able to turn Ukraine into a European country."
An opinion poll published by the local Democratic Initiative foundation showed that, if a presidential election was held now, Yanukovych would lose in a second round run-off to heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, or indeed to any of several other opposition leaders including Yatsenyuk.
Klitschko and other opposition leaders appear unwilling to end the street protests, even as they lose steam.
"We will fight to the end, we will not leave," he said.
The demonstrations were sparked by Yanukovych's decision last month to spike a trade deal with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia. The move angered many Ukrainians, who hoped that closer ties with the EU would help end centuries of Russia's domination.
The protests were galvanised by a brutal police crackdown on November 30, but Yanukovych's government has since limited the use of force in an apparent hope that protests will fizzle out.
Yanukovych also has sought to assuage the protesters' anger by releasing some jailed opposition activists and suspending several top officials regarding the crackdown, but thousands of demonstrators have maintained their vigil and the crowd has swelled over the weekends.
After several attempts to clear the protesters by force drew strong condemnation from the West, the president now appears set on waiting them out.
At yesterday's rally, many of the demonstrators wore ribbons in the colours of the Ukrainian national flag and remained confident their campaign would win.
Halina Kalymivska, 58, said the turnout could be lower than hoped because of the holiday season but that the underlying problems that sparked the protests have not gone away.
"It can't go on like this any longer. We want a normal life so that we can at least afford basic food," she said. "I don't think that people are disillusioned. Nothing has changed. People will keep on protesting, even after the holidays."
Additional reporting by Reuters