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Globe in Kiev: Ukrainian opposition looks to the West for support

A tire burns for heat and also used as a smoke screen as protesters in Kiev man their makeshift barricade January 26,2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Protesters in Ukraine have hardened their opposition to the government, with some leaders now calling for Canada and other countries to impose economic sanctions on Ukraine.

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Kiev on Sunday after a funeral for a 25-year-old protester who had been killed by police last week. The crowd chanted "murderers" and "Gestapo" as they passed government buildings and the casket was paraded through Independence Square, where demonstrations have been taking place for more than two months. Many cried "hero" as the coffin passed by.

Canada is seen by many in the square as a key ally in their fight against President Viktor Yanukovych and in interviews with The Globe and Mail, two main opposition leaders called on Canadians to apply pressure.

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"Canada has a huge and very influential Ukrainian diaspora," Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the largest opposition party, called Fatherland, said in an interview Sunday. "Canada is very influential. This is a G8 member country which [has been] a member of the security council of the United Nations. Canadian impact over Ukrainian events is tremendous."

Oleg Tyagnibok, who heads a smaller opposition party called Svoboda, said it was time for Canada and other Western nations to take action. "We would like to see extreme economic sanctions on the government [because] officials have violated the human rights of people," Mr. Tyagnibok said. "Right now the time for slogans for the nation is not enough, they fall way short of the mark."

Both men welcomed Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision to hold an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Ukraine. "Every example of pressure will help us in more ways than people can understand," said Mr. Tyagnibok.

Tensions across Ukraine have been running high since Saturday, when the opposition leaders rejected a proposal by Mr. Yanukovych that would have seen them join the government as a way out of the crisis. They rejected the offer, saying it did not address the concerns of the protesters, who want Mr. Yanukovych to resign.

"Yanukovych has to resign – that's the categorical demand of the the people," said Mr. Tyagnibok.

The demonstrations began largely over Mr. Yanukovych's decision to scrap trade negotiations with the European Union and form a closer alliance with Russia. But after a crackdown by police a few weeks ago, the protests have become far larger, with activists building a network of barricades around Independence Square that has effectively cut off the central area of the city. The demonstrations have also turned into an attack on Mr. Yanukovych, with allegations of widespread corruption in his administration, which has been in power since 2010. There are now calls not only for him to resign but for the entire system to be changed. The movement has also spread to roughly a dozen other cities, with some protesters taking over government offices and removing governors appointed by the president. As many as five protesters have been killed and more than 100 arrested.

"This is the most dramatic period in the history of my country," said Mr. Yatsenyuk. The country is "definitely going in the wrong direction."

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Mr.Yatsenyuk, a 39-year old lawyer and former foreign minister, has emerged as a rival to Mr. Yanukovych. His language during the protests has been fiery, telling protesters this week that he would take a "bullet to the head" rather than give in to Mr. Yanukovych. He is an ally of Yulia Tymoshenko, who led the Orange Revolution in 2004 which blocked Mr. Yanukovych from taking power because of alleged vote rigging. Ms. Tymoshenko has been in jail since 2011 on controversial charges of abuse of power and Mr. Yatsenyuk now leads her party.

He is a firm believer that Ukraine has a better future in the EU than with Russia. "A key condition for us is to sign an association agreement with European Union," he said Sunday. "The winner [in the current debate] will be those who will provide better living standards for Ukraine. And in order to get this we need the support from the Western world, starting with an [International Monetary Fund] and ending with investment to show that the opposition is stronger than the president."

He also wants to change the constitution to eliminate the post of president. And he is demanding the government withdraw recent laws that prohibit demonstrations and restrict free speech.

Mr. Tyagnibok, a doctor, takes a much harder line on Russia, saying its security force is behind the recent trouble in Ukraine. "We already know that this has been a Russian scenario a [Russian secret police] directed a scenario to destabilized Ukraine." Mr. Tyagnibok is a controversial figure in Ukraine, a centre-right nationalist who has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Mr. Tyagnibok has denied the allegations and gained legitimacy among many protesters for his virulent criticism of Mr. Yanukovych. Flags featuring Svoboda's three finger salute can be seen throughout Independence Square.

"This is an uprising between the people and the authority that has embellished itself in corruption and that has murdered its own citizens," he said Sunday. "That has brought this crisis."

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