Demonstrators take part in a mass rally on Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.
KIEV: An estimated 70,000 pro-Western Ukrainians thronged the heart of Kiev yesterday vowing never to give up their drive to oust President Viktor Yanukovich 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 Yanukovich 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 Yanukovich 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, Yanukovich has recently yielded ground by dismissing the government. But he also has to appease Russia, which has effectively frozen a sorely-needed $15bn bailout until the situation clears up. Moscow has so far issued only one $3bn instalment of the loan, which it promised to Yanukovich 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, said.
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. Nearby, a man in army fatigues read Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons”.
But this light atmosphere was darkened by the presence of men wearing bullet-proof vests, helmets and carrying batons—members of self-defence groups patrolling an avenue that was the scene of violent clashes in January.
People also stopped to take photos of a bullet hole in a building not far away, which activists say was fired during the clashes.
Alex Brideau, an analyst for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said the protesters’ actions 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. AFP