KIEV - Ukraine’s defiant opposition prepared for a fresh rally in Kiev on Sunday, buoyed by pledges of support from Europe and the United States as Russia slammed foreign interference.
Opposition groups have pressed for more concessions from President Viktor Yanukovych including an overhaul of the constitution to take away some of his sweeping powers. They are also demanding a presidential election scheduled in 2015 be brought forward to this year, while protesters in the streets want Yanukovych to resign immediately.
The new rally comes after Ukraine’s protest leaders, including boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, won pledges of support from top Western officials including US Secretary of State John Kerry in Munich this weekend. “It’s very annoying that Yanukovych is not listening to us,” said Oksana Hodakivska, a dentist and one of thousands of people gathered in Kiev’s barricaded Independence Square for the rally.
“He should resign along with parliament if he wants a peaceful resolution,” said the protester from the northwestern region of Zhytomyr. Hodakivska said she did not hold out much hope from Western pressure on Yanukovych.
“EU officials can temporarily stop the violence when they visit Ukraine but they are not going to keep coming here.
“Everything is in our hands,” she said.
But Yuriy Krenyuk, a pensioner from the western Ivano-Frankivsk region, said Western powers could help resolve the crisis by putting pressure on the foreign assets held by Ukrainian oligarchs who back Yanukovych. “If the oligarchs’ bank accounts are blocked then the question of Yanukovych’s resignation can be resolved very quickly,” he said. “Without the president’s resignation, people will not leave the Maidan,” he said, referring to the Independence Square.
Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party last week passed a law granting an amnesty to activists arrested in more than two months of protests but only on condition that official buildings occupied by the protesters are vacated. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the entire cabinet have also resigned and a series of draconian anti-protest laws that had radicalised the protest movement have been abolished. But the standoff between Yanukovych and the protesters in the barricaded tent city on the Maidain shows no sign of easing. “We understand that this system, this regime cannot and will not behave differently,” Klitschko said on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich on Saturday.
“And that’s why they have to go.”
The opposition fears that the authorities could be preparing to declare a state of emergency, with the army called in to clear the streets after the military on Friday called for “urgent steps” to ease the turmoil.
The wave of protests that has plunged Ukraine in its most acute crisis since 1991 independence began when Yanukovych in November turned down a partnership pact with the European Union under pressure from former master Moscow.
In December, Ukraine, which is mired in deep economic trouble, won a $15 billion (11 billion euro) bailout and gas supply discounts from Russia.
However, President Vladimir Putin last week said the financing would not be released in full until a new government was announced in Ukraine.
Piling further pressure, Putin economic adviser Sergei Glazyev warned the 63-year-old Yanukovych would lose power unless he suppressed a “creeping coup.”
‘West stands with Ukraine’s people’
Russia sparred with Western powers at the Munich conference over Ukraine, condemning what it said was foreign interference in another country’s internal affairs.
“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
But Kerry said the standoff in the ex-Soviet country was about fighting for “a democratic, European future”.
“The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight,” he said.
The demonstrations have now spread far beyond Kiev and what started out as a pro-EU movement has turned into an all-out drive to oust Yanukovych.
The standoff has also degenerated into deadly clashes in the capital, with two protesters and two police officers killed, according to an official death toll.
European officials have expressed outrage over the fate of 35-year-old Dmytro Bulatov, a protester who said he was kidnapped and tortured by unidentified captors after going missing more than a week ago.
Germany and Lithuania have offered to host Bulatov, who has been ordered to be placed under house arrest on suspicion of inciting unrest, to receive medical assistance.