Opposition protests President Yanukovych's pro-Russia shift
Thousands of protesters gathered in central Kiev on Tuesday after opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko called for a mass demonstration to protest President Viktor Yanukovych's (pictured) pursuit of closer ties with Russia.
AFP - Around 2,000 supporters of Ukraine's pro-Western opposition held an angry protest in central Kiev on Tuesday to condemn President Viktor Yanukovych's pursuit of close ties with Russia.
Protesters accused Yanukovych of selling out to the Kremlin by signing a controversial deal last month that will allow Russia to maintain a naval base in Ukraine until at least 2042 in exchange for cheaper natural gas.
"They are selling everything: our territory, our independence, our identity," Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of Ukraine's main opposition party, told the protesters outside the country's parliament.
Amid a heavy police presence and beneath drizzling rain, protesters held banners with slogans such as "No to the liquidation of Ukraine!" and waved blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags.
"Yanukovych is in the process of reviving the Soviet Union. He is groveling before Moscow," Oleg Tiagnybok, head of the nationalist group Svoboda (Freedom), told the crowd.
Several hundred counter-demonstrators from Yanukovych's political party also rallied next to the parliament building, which was surrounded by metal barricades erected by police.
More than 1,000 police, many wearing flak jackets and armed with truncheons, stood guard around parliament and kept the two camps apart. But most protestors had dispersed by the early afternoon without incident.
The demonstration was called by Tymoshenko, a former prime minister who lost a presidential election to Yanukovych in February.
It came three weeks after Yanukovych and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the deal extending Moscow's lease on its naval base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in exchange for a 30 percent discount on natural gas.
Yanukovych said the pact would save Ukraine billions of dollars and boost efforts to recover from the economic crisis. Critics said it undermined the sovereignty of Ukraine, which won independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lawmakers from pro-Western opposition parties threw eggs and smoke bombs and brawled with Yanukovych supporters during a raucous session of parliament last month in which the agreement was ratified.
Parliament was calm on Tuesday, but lawmakers voted to hold hearings on Wednesday in which the government will explain what further agreements it plans to sign with Russia -- a potentially explosive topic.
Medvedev is to visit Kiev again on May 17-18 and the opposition is worried he will sign more agreements binding Russia and Ukraine, including deals in the gas, nuclear energy and hydroelectric sectors.
"Once all this is signed, we will have nothing left," Tymoshenko warned.
The opposition is also alarmed about a proposal from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to merge Ukraine's state-run gas firm, Naftogaz, with Russia's state-controlled energy giant, Gazprom.
The flurry of deals comes after Yanukovych was elected president in February, replacing Viktor Yushchenko, a staunchly pro-Western politician who had chilly relations with Moscow.
Under Yushchenko, Ukraine sought close ties with the European Union and membership in the NATO military alliance, angering the Kremlin.
Following his election victory, Yanukovych was widely expected to improve ties with Russia, but many observers were still astonished by the speed with which his team moved to conclude agreements with Moscow.