Hours after facing down thousands of riot police, Ukraine’s enraged and empowered opposition upped the ante in its three-week-old standoff with the government, calling Wednesday for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Though protesters had long focused their anger on Mr. Yanukovych – blaming him for scuttling a trade agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia – they had previously called only for Mr. Yanukovych, whose five-year term expires in 2015, to dismiss his prime minister and cabinet.
But in the wake of what appeared to be a failed effort to forcibly shut down the protest camp on Kiev’s central Independence Square, opposition leaders said they could no longer accept a deal that left the President in office.
The United States hinted it might consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government following the attempted crackdown. “We are considering policy options … sanctions are included but I am not going to outline specifics,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “disgust” at the decision by Ukraine’s authorities to “meet the peaceful protest …with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he had been “deeply concerned” by the apparent effort to shut down a peaceful protest.
“Canada and the international community expect Ukrainian authorities to respect and protect the rights of its citizens, including the right to express their opinions freely,” Mr. Harper said in a statement.
Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing champ who heads one of three main opposition parties, was visibly exhausted after a night spent rallying his supporters on the streets. “Yanukovych has destroyed the path to a compromise,” he said. “We have only one way to change the situation in the country now. A change of power through fresh elections.”
Another prominent opposition figure, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, released a statement from behind bars, where she is serving a seven-year jail term that many view as politically motivated. “I am calling on all Ukrainians: rise up!” she wrote. “No talks with the gang,” she added, referring to Mr. Yanukovych and his inner circle.
Thousands of riot police, wearing helmets and clutching metal shields, advanced on Independence Square in the darkness early Wednesday morning, seizing and breaking apart barricades the opposition had built around the city centre. But they paused when confronted by a line of protesters who were wearing orange hard hats and apparently willing to fight for their turf. Several thousand opposition supporters were in the square when the police push began, and the number quickly swelled as dawn broke and news of the crackdown effort spread.
By noon – about nine hours after the confrontation began – riot police had withdrawn back to defensive positions around the Presidential Administration and other government buildings. Groups of protesters quickly rebuilt their barricades using park benches and sheet metal, while the rest of the crowd kept warm by dancing to the pop music acts that had continued to play even as the riot police pushed within 50 metres of their stage on Independence Square early Wednesday.
The police finally withdrew “because they saw it was impossible to push so many people out. It was useless,” said Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister who supports the demonstrations. However, some protesters who were on the front line said they felt as if the police were testing opposition defences in preparation for a future, more definitive crackdown.
Mr. Yanukovych called for calm after the clashes and declared he would never use force to disperse a peaceful protest. “For the sake of achieving compromise I am calling on the opposition not to reject [talks], not to follow the path of confrontation and ultimatums,” said a statement posted on his website. “I am ready to participate in such round-table talks personally.”
The protests against Mr. Yanukovych were initially sparked by his Nov. 21 decision to pull out of a trade-pact agreement with the EU. His government has acknowledged it reversed course after threats of economic retaliation from Moscow, the country’s Soviet-era master.
Many view the tussle on Kiev’s streets as part of a tug-of-war over between the Kremlin and the West over the future of this deeply divided nation. Ukraine’s economy is almost entirely reliant on Russian-supplied gas, and – with the crisis-hit EU unable to offer much financial aid – the country may need Moscow’s help meeting some $4-billion in debt obligations due early next year.
Mr. Yanukovych was voted to power in 2010 largely by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, concentrated in the east and centre of the country, who broadly support his policy of greater integration with its giant neighbour to the east. But Russia’s lingering influence is hated by many of the protesters in Kiev, the bulk of whom hail from the Ukrainian-speaking centre and west of the country.
Elements of a 100,000-strong demonstration on Sunday turned their anger on a statue of Vladimir Lenin that had stood in the city centre since the 1950s.
“This monument was a symbol of Russian occupation,” said Vasyl Honcharuk, a retired museum curator who stood Wednesday watching as a crowd chipped away at the remains of the statue, looking for souvenirs. “Ukraine must be part of Europe now.”
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