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Interior Ministry personnel leave Independence Square as pro-European integration protesters gesture in central Kiev December 11, 2013. (GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
Interior Ministry personnel leave Independence Square as pro-European integration protesters gesture in central Kiev December 11, 2013. (GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)

Riot police move in as Ukraine protesters vow to stand their ground Add to ...

The Globe and Mail's senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon is tweeting from Kiev's Independence Square. Follow him on Twitter: @markmackinnon

Ukraine’s political crisis was on the verge of turning violent as riot police moved in on anti-government protesters in the centre of Kiev who were vowing to stand their ground early Wednesday.

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Thousands of demonstrators - some who had spent the first part of the night sleeping on Independence Square, plus others who rushed in as news of the police move spread – sang the national anthem and chanted “Glory to Ukraine” as the black-helmeted police slowly closed in on the concert stage at the centre of the three-week-old protest.

The police were successful in seizing and dismantling makeshift barricades the opposition had built from park benches and sheet metal to block the roads around Independence Square. However, they paused when confronted by a thick line of protesters wearing orange hard hats and apparently prepared to do battle.

On the main square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan, a crowd of about 10,000 continued to mix dancing to pop songs with chanting to political speeches as the police approached. Some clutched religious icons, others held flags of Western countries they hoped would support the Ukrainian protesters.

“My mother called me at 2 a.m. and said ‘there’s something going on on the Maidan,’” said Olesya Mygal, a 30-year-old media professional who rushed to join those already on the square. “I’m not scared. I’m greatly concerned with what is going on in Ukraine right now.”

Nearby, Toronto native Roman Kalyniuk stood holding a Canadian flag. “I’m here for my grandparents and my parents. I’m here for the country this country deserves to be,” the 32-year-old artist said.

The crisis that has gripped Ukraine for three weeks grew deeper Tuesday after President Viktor Yanukovych criticized those calling for a revolution in the country and made it clear that he would not reverse his decision to pursue deeper relations with Russia over ties with the European Union.

Protesters had vowed to stay on the streets of Kiev and other cities until the President meets their demands, which include the dismissal of his government and a resumption of trade negotiations with the European Union, from which Mr. Yanukovych abruptly walked away last month. However, riot police were making slow but steady progress, dismantling barricades and pushing protesters off of surrounding streets and onto Independence Square itself.

The increasingly volatile confrontation threatens the stability of a strategic region that lies on a geopolitical fault line. Many see Ukraine’s choice as stark and immediate: resume efforts to integrate with the European Union, and by extension the West, or fall back under the de facto control of Russia, its long-time imperial master.

Top diplomats from the EU and the United States flew into Kiev yesterday, hoping to avoid a violent conflict in this deeply divided country of 46 million people. Many opposition supporters hail from the Ukrainian-speaking centre and west of the country, while Mr. Yanukovych’s pro-Kremlin policies are broadly supported in the Russified south and east.

While EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland each called on the government to show restraint and to allow peaceful protests to continue, Russia’s parliament, the Duma, passed a statement accusing Western countries of supporting the demonstrations. “Stop mounting external pressure on the politics of a country that is brotherly to us,” part of the statement read.

Lurking worrisomely in the background is an economic crisis, with Kiev on the hook to pay almost $4-billion in debt and gas bills in the first quarter of 2014. The country’s cash supply is low, having spent much of its foreign reserves in an effort to prop up the currency, the hryvnia.

The centre of Kiev has been seized by protests – with numbers occasionally swelling into the hundreds of thousands – since Mr. Yanukovych announced on Nov. 21 that he was walking away from a proposed EU trade deal to pursue closer economic and political ties with Moscow. Mr. Yanukovych’s government has acknowledged it made the switch under heavy pressure from the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, Mr. Yanukovych once more made it clear that the relationship with Russia was his priority. While saying he still wanted to see Ukraine grow closer to the EU, he added: “We cannot talk about the future without talking about restoring trade relations with Russia.”

A day after riot police tightened the cordon around the demonstrators on Independence Square – resulting in clashes that left 10 protesters injured – Mr. Yanukovych also criticized opposition leaders who have called for his government to be toppled. “Calls for a revolution pose a threat to national security,” he said. “I want that this dark page is turned and is never allowed to happen again.”

In a slight softening, the president also said he would work for the release of detained protesters who were not involved in acts of violence.

In addition to the demand that Mr. Yanukovych fire Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet, the opposition is calling for the release of those detained in a bloody Nov. 30 clash between protesters and police, as well as the prosecution of those involved in the crackdown.

Mr. Yanukovych made his remarks in a televised roundtable with his three predecessors as president of post-Soviet Ukraine: Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko. The session was meant to try and resolve the crisis on the streets, but opposition leaders dismissed the roundtable as a pointless show, and no concrete suggestions emerged from the discussion.

Mr. Yushchenko, the hero of the 2004 Orange Revolution, was nominally the opposition voice at the roundtable – and he seemed to make a point of sitting as far from the other three men as the table would permit – but his disappointing tenure as president left him with virtually no support base among those now protesting in Kiev and other cities. “Yushchenko is totally discredited,” said Natasha Lysova, spokeswoman for jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. “There was no opposition [representative at the roundtable] at all.”

Ms. Lysova said the protesters on Independence Square would remain there until their demands were met – and would defend their ground in the event of another police effort to forcibly end the demonstrations.

On the square itself – where a concert stage has been erected to host political speeches and pop music performances – an eclectic mix ranging from liberals to far-right nationalists gathered around bonfires and danced in an effort to keep warm.

After 20 days of protests, there’s a sense the dispute is far from being resolved. “We don't know how long we’ll be here, but we have warm clothes and groceries, we have everything we need,” said Vladimir Yarmolyk, a 44-year-old small business owner who had travelled from Lviv, in the west of the country, to join the protest in the capital.

Shivering in the cold, he confessed he was worried about a police crackdown during the night. “But it’s better to fight than to be afraid.”

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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