At least 200,000 pro-European demonstrators began a mass rally in the Ukrainian capital yesterday in a fresh show of force against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after his failure to sign a key EU agreement.
Opposition parties have called on “all Ukrainians” to mass on Independence Square, where demonstrators angered by Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU pact have held rolling protests for more than three weeks.
As protesters wearing the yellow and blue colors of the Ukrainian flag packed into the iconic square, EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fuele said Brussels was suspending work on the Association Agreement that would have put the country on the path to EU integration.
“Work on hold,” Fuele tweeted, saying further discussions required a “clear commitment [to] sign” from the Ukrainian side.
Yanukovych is under intense pressure to decide whether to align his nation with the West by signing a deal with the EU, or to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.
He is set to travel to Moscow tomorrow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks expected to center on a proposed free-trade deal with Russia fiercely opposed by the demonstrators.
“This is the last chance for Ukraine as an independent country,” said protester Leonid Khusachenko, a 43-year-old history teacher from the western city of Lviv, ahead of yesterday’s rally.
Ukraine’s security services were on high alert as about 5,000 Yanukovych supporters bussed in from the provinces began a rival rally in a park near Independence Square, vowing “non-stop protests.”
However, Khusachenko, sitting by a towering barricade of snow-filled bags, wood scraps and barbed wire, a Ukrainian flag wrapped around his neck, said he did not believe there would be a repeat of last week’s crackdown by riot police, given the presence of the world’s media on the square.
Opposition leader and heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko had said ahead of the rally that “all Ukrainians must go to the Maidan to voice their aspirations to live in a modern European country,” using the Ukrainian name for the square.
“We see the attempts to frighten us, but they will fail,” he said.
The latest mass protest came days after a failed attempt by riot police to drive the protest camp out of the iconic square, ramping up tensions in the ex-Soviet country’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
Protesters have been camped out on the square where the Orange Revolution unfolded in 2004 for more than three weeks, after Yanukovych failed to sign the Association Agreement.
The party of jailed opposition leader and former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on its Web site that yesterday’s rally would feature “leaders of opposition parties, public figures and foreign guests, particularly American senators.”
Outspoken US Senator John McCain flew into Kiev on Saturday and held meetings with Klitschko, nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok and the head of Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Union Party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.