Ukrainian protesters yesterday declared a general strike and blockaded government buildings after violent clashes in which more than 100,000 sought early elections over the authorities’ rejection of a historic EU pact.
Nearly 10,000 supporters of the ex-Soviet state’s alliance with the EU and disavowal of old master Russia camped out overnight on Kiev’s iconic Independence Square in a bid to keep alive Ukraine’s biggest pro-democracy protest since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Thousands then moved toward government and state administration buildings calling for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s immediate ouster and a nationwide strike.
Streams of cars honked their horns in support while church bells rang out across the heart of the ancient capital in scenes posing the single biggest challenge to the president’s three-year rule.
“We are tired of these gangsters and bandits,” said a driver who identified himself as Ivan Filipovich after pulling his car alongside others blocking the entrance to the main government building.
“Everything is corrupt. We want to be close to normal countries and not Russia,” the 51-year-old said while glancing at the gold-and-blue flag of the EU hanging out his window.
The swarming crowd had first defied a ban on protests on Sunday by driving lines of helmeted police off the same expansive square that provided the setting of the dramatic 2004 revolt.
Some of the more militant in the group also steered a bulldozer within striking distance of barricades protecting the Yanukovych administration building.
Security forces outside the president’s seat of power fired dozens of stun grenades and smoke bombs at masked demonstrators who were pelting police with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Kiev’s city government said in an update yesterday that 165 police officers and demonstrators had been injured in the most serious clashes witnessed in Ukraine since the Soviet Union’s demise.
The nation of 46 million was thrown into crisis when Yanukovych snubbed EU leaders at a summit on Friday last week and refused a deal that would have paved Ukraine’s way to eventual membership in the 28-nation bloc.
Yet the move now threatens to backfire on Yanukovych as his political foes try to build momentum amid discontent with state corruption and disappearing jobs.
Ukrainian officials were dealt more embarrassment yesterday when members of the nationalist Svoboda party held on to their control of Kiev city hall after storming the empty building late on Sunday.
“A revolution is starting in Ukraine,” Svoboda party chief Oleh Tyahnybok said.