KIEV, December 8 (RIA Novosti) – Several hundred thousand people gathered in the Ukrainian capital Sunday for one of the largest protest rallies in the former Soviet nation’s history, throwing down the gauntlet to a government that has resisted calls for negotiation with the opposition.
In an incident that may spark criminal investigations and cast a shadow over the generally pacific events, however, a group of nationalists ripped down a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin.
The mass assembly in Kiev was the biggest to date since the government last month pulled out of preparations to sign landmark political and trade deals with the EU, sparking widespread indignation across Ukraine.
In an indication that the standoff has provoked international concern, the European Commission announced Sunday that EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Kiev next week to assist in seeking a way out of the political impasse.
Authorities have so far displayed little desire to compromise with the opposition, and have instead limited themselves to issuing ominous warnings that demonstrations could tip over into unrest.
Despite that, Sunday’s events had passed largely without incident until the late afternoon, as darkness began to descend.
While nationwide discontent was initially focused on the reversal of course over the EU– a move authorities justified by stating it was preferable to boost economic ties with neighboring Russia – it has with time taken on a more generalized anti-government flavor.
Ukraine’s weak economy, much of which is reliant on outdated heavy industry, has struggled to recover from the devastating impact of the recent global financial crisis. Rampant unemployment has driven large numbers of Ukrainians abroad for work and many bristle at perceived high-level corruption.
Shortly after light broke Sunday, Ukrainian Orthodox Church priests led open-air prayers from the stage as hundreds of those camped in overnight began awaking and collecting rations of tea and breakfast.
Toward mid-morning, the crowd on Independence Square had already swelled to a few thousand people, many of them waving an array of flags, from those of Ukraine to the standards of leading opposition parties and the European Union.
As the assigned time for the midday start to the assembly approached, a crowd of all ages grew fast and filled the square and streets leading off it. Groups affiliated with political parties marched in file to and from the square, reciting political chants and singing patriotic songs on the way.
Kiev police estimated the turnout at 100,000, but bird’s eye video footage of Independence Square and the sheer number of people filling side streets suggested a vastly superior figure.
One of the first to talk from the stage, which bore the slogan “For a European Ukraine” behind it, was Yevgeniya Tymoshenko, reading out a defiant and bellicose speech from her mother, jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Do not give up, don’t take one step back. Do not sit at the negotiating table with the authorities,” the younger Tymoshenko said, reading out her mother’s message. “Our aim is for the early, quick removal of (Viktor Yanukovych) as president of Ukraine.”
That drew an indignant response from ruling Party of Regions deputy Vitaly Grushevsky, who described Tymoshenko’s statement as an incitement to "hatred, disorder and chaos."
"Tymoshenko's appeal is nothing more or less than a call for a coup," Grushevsky said.
In what has become a verbal leitmotif of opposition meetings, speeches on Independence Square opened or closed with the slogan “Glory to Ukraine,” to which the crowd replied: “Glory to the heroes.”
It is unclear to what extent the opposition parties most actively engaged in the protest –Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), the Udar (Punch) party of heavyweight boxer Vitaly Klitschko, and Svoboda (Freedom) – have control over the wave of discontent and leaders have often acted uncertainly in conveying their political demands.
That did not appear to be the case Sunday, however, as various party leaders stated their case.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, head of the Batkivshchyna faction in parliament, demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and announced that the scope of protests would be broadened.
Klitschko told the crowd that a decisive moment had arrived for Ukraine and urged a total revision of “the structures of power” through early parliamentary and presidential elections.
The protest movement had appeared to be losing momentum until November 30, when police aggressively cleared Independence Square, sparking outrage and prompting hundreds of thousands to rally on the spot the following day. The square, which served as the focal point of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, has been occupied and closed off to authorities ever since.
Thousands are occupying the space on a round-the-clock basis, huddling around wood-fueled fires in steel barrels to keep warm as temperatures hover around freezing point. Speeches to the assembled have alternated with musical acts, creating a festive mood among the determinedly peaceful crowd.
Police presence has been virtually negligible around the square, but security is tight at the nearby presidential administration and parliament buildings, which have both been targeted by rallies.
On Independence Square, volunteers clad in protective gear stood sentry at gaps in the barricades to check for suspicious elements among the many thousands constantly pouring in and out of the area. Dozens of tents, many of them equipped with heating stoves, have been installed as sleeping quarters and feeding points.
Graffiti, banners, fliers and stickers dotted around the area decry, in frequently bawdy language, leading figures in the ruling elite.
Those that have turned out in the square have rallied around numerous, often apparently disparate, causes. These have ranged from calls for deep governmental reform – typically expressed as an aspiration to emulate Western European standards – to demands that conditions be improved for small and medium business to flourish.
Outside parliament, sited a little more than a kilometer away from Independence Square, several thousand government supporters held their own meeting Sunday, as they have done in recent days. The number of attendees of that meeting was vastly inferior to that of the opposition – the figure claimed by organizers was around 15,000.
Pro-government gatherings have typically been more subdued. On Saturday evening, young men guarding entry points were turning people away, just as a raucous musical act was getting into its stride at Independence Square.
On Sunday, speakers called on the pro-government crowd to give their backing to President Yanukovych, who has been target of much vitriolic rhetoric on Independence Square.
In a telling detail, one speech after another was in Russian, in contrast with the Ukrainian favored at the opposition rally – a fact that underlines the regional aspect of the political divide. While Yanukovych enjoys the bulk of his support in the largely ethnic Russian east, the more European-inclined, Ukrainian-speaking population prevalently hails from the west.
Addressing the crowd in Russian and a smattering of Ukrainian, ruling Party of Regions deputy Nestor Shufrych urged supporter to give their backing to Yanukovych and condemned government opponents as a divisive force in the country.
“Don’t let them tell you that half the people of this country should not be allowed to think in Russian, the language of Pushkin, the language of Lermontov,” he said, in a reference to two classic 19th century Russian poets.
As sundown approached, groups of people in the opposition marched up the hill from Independence Square and erected tents at a crossroad one block away from a spot where the pro-government Party of Regions was holding its gathering.
At one stage, only a few rows of police officers separated the two crowds. Opposition representatives used a public address system mounted on a van to address people on both sides of the police lines.
In another part of the city, a group of masked youths apparently belonging to the Svoboda nationalist party used a steel cable to rip down a Lenin statue. The head and arms of the monument broke away as it hit the ground, after which people in the crowd took turns at smashing off fragments with a sledgehammer.
Alexey Yaroshevsky, a reporter for news broadcaster RT, posted a picture on his Twitter account of a priest joining in with the process of destroying the statue.
The Lenin statue had been the target of a similar toppling attempt on December 1, but that effort was thwarted by security forces.
Changes headline, adds details on Lenin statue toppling