The withdrawal of riot police from two areas in Ukraine’s capital has raised opposition hopes that three weeks of escalating protests have begun to erode police support for president Viktor Yanukovych and his government.
Yuri Lutsenko, a former interior minister who is now an opposition leader, said the police retreat early yesterday showed that “only some units remain at the service of the regime”.
“This is a great victory,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the largest opposition party in parliament, said from the stage at Kiev’s central Independence Square, where protesters have set up an extensive camp manned around the clock.
Last night, Mr Yanukovych issued an invitation to political, religious and civil-society figures to participate in a national dialogue. There was no immediate reaction from opposition leaders, who have demanded that he fire his government and release all arrested demonstrators before they will talk with him.
The invitation gave no details about the proposed date for the talks – and it was unclear if it was merely an attempt to buy time and mollify western officials.
“I want to calm everyone down – there will be no dispersal of protesters,” the current interior minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko, said. He did not explain why, however, thousands of helmeted and shield-bearing police were deployed in the first place. Prime minister Mykola Azarov also said that police would not act against peaceful protesters.
Western diplomats have increased their pressure on Mr Yanukovych to seek a solution to the tensions that have paralysed the nation of 46 million.
It was Mr Yanukovych’s shelving in November of an agreement with the European Union to deepen economic and political ties that set off the protests. Supporters of the pact – including many in Kiev, the capital – want Ukraine to become closer to western Europe and distance itself from Russia, which ruled or dominated Ukraine for centuries.
Russia has worked hard to derail the accord, issuing a variety of trade threats, and Ukrainians in the east look more favourably on aligning closer with Russia. Mr Yanukovych, who is seeking a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep Ukraine from going bankrupt, is sensitive to the economic disruption that trade disputes with Russia can cause.
The flurry of police action in Kiev began about 1am yesterday, when phalanxes of riot police approached Independence Square from several directions, tearing down some of the tents and barricades.
Many of the protesters, wearing orange safety helmets – the colour that symbolised a successful popular revolt against a fraudulent election in 2004 – locked arms against the police and simultaneously jumped up and down to stay warm in the freezing temperatures.
Separately, three buses of riot police parked on the steps of the city administration building, about 300 metres away from the square. Protesters poured water on the steps, which froze, and grappled with police. The police returned to the buses and they pulled away hours later.
The far larger police contingent at the square also pulled away and by yesterday afternoon, new tents and barricades were being put up to replace those destroyed overnight. But even after the police left, Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion who has emerged as one of the main figures of the opposition, said the overnight action had “closed off the path to compromise”.