KIEV - An estimated 70,000 pro-Western Ukrainians thronged the heart of Kiev on Sunday vowing never to give up their drive to oust President Viktor Yanukovych for his alliance with old master Russia.
Wearing blue and yellow ribbons — the colours of both Ukraine and the European Union — the crowd received a religious blessing before opposition leaders took to a podium on Independence Square in a bid to ratchet up pressure on Yanukovych to appoint a new pro-Western government.
“None of the kidnappings and tortures have yielded any results,” said Igor Lutsenko, an activist who survived a severe beating after reportedly being abducted from hospital during deadly unrest in January. The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million people has been in chaos since November when Yanukovych ditched an historic EU trade and political pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow, stunning pro-EU parts of the population and sparking violent protests. Since then, what started out as a localised, domestic bout of unrest has snowballed into a titanic tussle for Ukraine’s future between Russia and the West, as demonstrations continued and spread to other parts of the country.
After initially ignoring protesters’ demands, Yanukovych has since yielded some ground by dismissing the government. But he also has to appease Russia, which has effectively frozen a sorely-needed $15-billion (11-billion-euro) bailout until the situation clears up.
Moscow has so far issued only one $3.0-billion instalment of the loan, which it promised to Yanukovych after he rejected the EU pact.
“People must stay on the streets until the end, otherwise there will be reprisals. And the opposition must be more resolved, not limit themselves to speeches on the podium. We need early presidential elections and a new constitution,” Anna Rebenok, a young secretary, told AFP on the square.
The protest is the 10th major demonstration since November, and the size of the crowds Sunday roughly equalled the turnout last weekend, although it was markedly lower than at the end of January, when violence left several people dead.
Protesters have set up row upon row of manned, grimy barricades on all four roads leading to the square, turning it into a pro-Western fortress that leaves riot police on the outside.
On an upmarket avenue near the square, protesters and curious onlookers had clambered onto one of these barricades made slippery by melting snow, facing off with dozens of riot police as a line of burnt vehicles stood in between.
One woman wore high-heels, the other carried her baby up, and many took pictures with their smartphones.
But this light atmosphere was darkened by the presence of men wearing army fatigues, helmets and carrying batons — protesters patrolling an avenue that was the scene of violent clashes in January.
Alex Brideau, an analyst for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said the actions of the protesters were a “key wildcard in the political standoff”, noting that their “continued frustration with the lack of progress on their demands” was a major factor behind the January violence.
On Sunday, former boxer turned opposition icon Vitali Klitschko set a challenge for Yanukovych, inviting him to come to the square and face his pro-EU foes. “I am going to suggest to him that he come here on the Maidan (Independence Square) to hear what people say about him,” he told a cheering crowd.
The opposition wants lawmakers to slash presidential powers and return to a pre-2010 constitution that swayed the balance towards parliament.
They are also calling on the authorities to release detained protesters. Influential pro-demonstration tycoon Petro Poroshenko told the crowd that so far, 392 demonstrators had been released and 49 were still being held. But Ukraine’s tattered economy is in ever-growing need of assistance amid sliding domestic production and dwindling foreign reserves, which analysts say could push Yanukovych to ignore opposition demands and appoint a new pro-Moscow government.
Apart from giving Ukraine a much-needed loan, Putin’s bailout would also slash the price of Russian gas imports by a third — a huge relief for the economy that analysts believe should help revive stalled growth.
Ukraine already has a $3.3 billion debt built up since last year for Russian natural gas imports, on which the country’s industries and households depend.
The protracted crisis has seen Ukraine’s borrowing costs spike and the currency lose nearly 10 percent of its value as frightened consumers rush to stock up on dollars and euros.
Several banks have reported hard currency shortages and the central bank on Friday was forced to impose capital controls and move the Ukrainian hryvnia’s official rate to 8.7 from 7.9 per dollar — its first shift of the peg since July 2012.