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Tymoshenko arrest overshadows Ukraine anniversary

Ukraine's celebrations to mark 20 years since it split from a crumbling USSR were overshadowed Wednesday by protests in support of the former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was arrested earlier this month.

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AFP - Ukraine on Wednesday marked 20 years since it split from the USSR with ceremonies shadowed by sadness over its unfulfilled potential and protests over the arrest of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

The two-decade anniversary of the declaration of independence by its parliament from the USSR on August 24, 1991 was to have been a glittering celebration for the strategic country bordering four EU nations and Russia.

President Viktor Yanukovych took part in a ceremony dedicated to Ukraine's unity at the statue of Saint Volodymyr overlooking the Dnipro river while local stars performed on Independence Square, the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution popular uprising.

But in a sign of the economically tough times, the authorities scrapped a military parade that was to have marked the day to save over $20 million from the budget.

Meanwhile the proud expressions of unity were threatened by mass protests called by supporters of Tymoshenko, the former prime minister whose arrest earlier this month caused international concern.

A protest movement called the "Committee for Resisting Dictatorship in Ukraine" called for a protest march from the statue of Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko down Kiev's main Kreshchatyk avenue.

The march was banned by a Kiev court but thousands still gathered in central Kiev, blocking traffic and briefly clashing with security officers who blocked their intended route to the president's offices.

Tymoshenko's right-hand man Olexander Turchinov told the protestors to regroup later on Independence Square, the scene of the 2004 uprising.

In a further sign of tension, Ukraine's security service said Monday it had arrested three people on suspicion of plotting a nail bomb attack on the ceremonies.

Many Ukrainians' biggest concern is the parlous state of the economy 20 years after independence, rather than the political travails of Tymoshenko who some critics see as a political chameleon changing colour every few years.

According to a survey by the Kiev-based Razumkov centre, 61.7 percent of Ukrainians believe the situation in the country has deteriorated since 1991 and only 23.2 percent believe their families are better off.

Tymoshenko was one of the leaders of then iconic 2004 Orange Revolution after fraudulent presidential elections that were initially awarded to the pro-Kremlin Yanukovych.

The re-run brought pro-Western leaders to power and created unprecedented hopes that Ukraine was heading for a prosperous future at the heart of Europe.

But with corruption still dire even by regional standards, the pro-Western leaders falling out and the economy struggling, the Orange dream rapidly evaporated.

Ironically, Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko in 2010 presidential elections which were commended by the West as free and fair. The president has since sought to show he is serious about EU integration.

But Tymoshenko's supporters argue her ongoing trial on abuse of power charges is part of a vendetta pursued by the Regions Party of Yanukovych against her faction.

As Tymoshenko languishes in jail, former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko sits in a US prison serving a sentence for money laundering and ex-president Leonid Kuchma is being investigated over the murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000.

No politician has managed to heal Ukraine's geographic divide which has left the Ukrainian-speaking, nationalist West with quite different ideas about the country's future from the Russian-speaking East where the Soviet Union is more fondly remembered.

Western hopes that Ukraine would be a bulwark against Russian influence were disappointed amid a confused foreign policy that has swung from neutrality to vehemently pro-EU, to pro-Kremlin and back to neutrality within a decade.

Russia on Wednesday increased pressure on Ukraine, with President Dmitry Medvedev saying Kiev should either become a full member of a Moscow-led customs union or forget about any preferential treatment.

"We cannot agree to Ukraine joining in accordance with some kind of formula, like 3+1," Medvedev said in Siberia after talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

 

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