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Europe

Hundreds of thousands protest in Ukraine’s capital

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-12-09

Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev on Sunday, where opposition leaders urged them to maintain pressure on President Viktor Yanukovich to sack his government and abandon plans for closer ties with Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters swarmed Ukraine’s capital Kiev on Sunday, where the country’s opposition leaders urged them to continue heaping pressure on President Viktor Yanukovich to sack his government and abandon plans for closer ties with Russia.

Many of the demonstrators who gathered at the city’s central Independence Square are furious with the government over its decision to back out of a historic agreement with the European Union in favour of a possible trade deal with Russia, Ukraine’s Soviet-era ruler.

Ukrainian protesters knock down Lenin statue

Ukrainian protesters angry over their government’s decision to seek closer economic ties with Russia instead of with the European Union toppled a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev on Sunday.

The statue has symbolic importance as it underlines Ukraine’s shared history with Russia, which is now trying to persuade Kiev to join a new Moscow-led customs union.

(REUTERS)

The protest – which organisers hoped would mobilise one million people on the streets of Kiev – is just the latest sign of mounting tensions in Ukraine over the past two weeks, raising fears over the country’s political and economic stability.

“This is a decisive moment when all Ukrainians have gathered here because they do not want to live in a country where corruption rules and where there is no justice,” said world heavyweight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko.

The opposition accuses Yanukovich, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, of preparing to take Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union.

“We are on a razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community,” jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said in an emotional message to the crowd read out by her daughter Yevgenia.

“There is a significantly greater chance of ending up in a medieval dictatorship; the choice is in your hands,” said Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office in a case condemned by the West as politically motivated.

Independence Square

Tymoshenko, whose fiery rhetoric galvanised protesters in the 2004-05 Orange Revolution that denied Yanukovich the presidency then, appealed to the protesters not to give in and not to agree to negotiate with Yanukovich’s “gang”.

Far-right nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok asked the crowd “Do we want to go under the yoke of Moscow?”, to which they bellowed “No!”. When he asked “Do we want to return to Europe?”, they yelled “Yes!”.

Special report: Ukraine nationalists on recruitment drive

A group of protesters later moved towards the government building, a kilometre away, and began to erect tents and barricades, apparently with the aim of stopping normal government activity next week.

Independence Square has been transformed into a makeshift village of tents, festooned with Ukrainian blue and yellow flags, EU flags and opposition banners, beneath a large television screen. With temperatures dipping below freezing, some protesters huddled around small fires for warmth. Protesters also hoisted a huge portrait of Tymoshenko onto a New Year Tree that towered over the square.

Both Russia and Ukraine have denied that Putin and Yanukovich discussed the customs union in their talks on Friday, but further bilateral talks are planned for Dec. 17. The two leaders are widely believed to have struck a bargain whereby Ukraine obtains cheaper Russian gas and possibly credits in exchange for backing away from the EU.

Klitschko, who appears to be emerging as a possible leader-in-waiting, told protesters they would achieve their aim, though he stressed the need to stay peaceful.

Demands

Last weekend, riot police beat protesters and journalists, triggering EU condemnation and swelling the protesters’ ranks.

“We do not want to be kept quiet by a policeman’s truncheon,” Klitschko told Sunday’s crowd.

He demanded the release of political prisoners, punishment of those responsible for last weekend’s police crackdown, the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s government and early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Those camped out on Independence Square have been joined by huge numbers coming in from Ukrainian-speaking areas of western and central Ukraine, where opposition politicians enjoy strong support.

A Tymoshenko ally, former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko, appealed to people in Russian-speaking areas of the east - the bedrock of Yanukovich’s power - to turn out and join the protests. “We are the same people as you are, except that they stole from you earlier,” he said.

Police have threatened to eject protesters occupying public buildings including Kiev’s City Hall, which is a stone’s throw from the makeshift barricades limiting access to the hub of the protest movement on Independence Square.

But on Sunday it remained the organisational headquarters of the protests, where volunteers were signing up to be on security duty or offer legal aid to demonstrators should the protests turn sour. Some demonstrators were asleep on mats on the floor of the main hall, while others were rifling through a huge pile of donated clothing.

“The current authorities have been completely discredited by their actions and the police brutality. What unites everyone here is a desire to see a change of government. We need new elections,” said Sviatislav Zaporozhit, 26, who works in retail in Kiev.

“I don’t want to go back to what my parents lived under the Soviet Union ... When I am old, I want to live like people in Europe. I want to live in a normal country.”

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

Date created : 2013-12-08

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