ANTI-government protesters toppled a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine’s capital and attacked it with hammers yesterday in a symbolic challenge to president Viktor Yanukovich and his plans for closer ties with Russia.
The gesture rejecting Moscow’s historic influence over Ukraine came after opposition leaders told hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on Kiev’s Independence Square to keep up pressure on Mr Yanukovich to sack his government.
The protesters are furious that the government decided last month to ditch a landmark pact with the European Union in favour of closer economic co-operation with Moscow, Ukraine’s Soviet-era overlord.
Mr Yanukovich’s sudden tack towards Russia has provoked the biggest street protests since the 2004-5 Orange Revolution, when people power forced a re-run of a fraud-tainted election and thwarted his first run for the presidency.
“Yanukovich, you are next!” chanted protesters as they took turns to hack at the red granite statue of Lenin, leader of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
Cheered by the crowd, a young woman planted an EU flag on the pedestal where the 3.5-metre-high statue had stood since 1946. Opposition leaders denied any link to its removal.
The authorities and protesters have confronted each other for weeks, raising fears of political and economic instability in the former Soviet republic.
“This is a decisive moment when all Ukrainians have gathered here because they do not want to live in a country where corruption rules and where there is no justice,” said Vitaly Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion-turned- politician.
Ukraine’s opposition accuses Mr Yanukovich, who met Russia’s president Vladimir Putin on Friday, of preparing to take the country into a Moscow-led customs union, which they see as an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.
Yanukovich has said he is preparing a “strategic partnership” with Russia, but has not committed to joining the customs union.
“We are on a razor’s edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community,” jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said in a message to yesterday’s rally, read out by her daughter Yevgenia.
Last weekend, riot police beat protesters and journalists, drawing EU condemnation and swelling the protesters’ ranks.
“We do not want to be kept quiet by a policeman’s truncheon,” Mr Klitschko told yesterday’s crowd.
He demanded the release of political prisoners, punishment of those responsible for last weekend’s crackdown, the resignation of prime minister Mykola Azarov’s government and early presidential and parliamentary elections.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso urged Mr Yanukovich by phone yesterday to seek a dialogue with his opponents and to respect civil freedoms, the EU executive said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will visit Kiev this week to help to find a way out of the crisis, it said.
Kiev and Moscow have both denied that Mr Putin and Mr Yanukovich discussed the customs union when they met in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, but further talks are planned for 17 December.
A group of protesters, chanting “revolution”, started erecting tents and barricades near the government building after yesterday’s rally, apparently aiming to halt normal government activity next week.