Ukraine: Protesters camp out in Kiev

Protesters face police lines near the presidential administration building during a rally on Sunday. Picture: Reuters
Protesters face police lines near the presidential administration building during a rally on Sunday. Picture: Reuters
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Ukrainian protesters are continuing to blockade the main government building, seeking to force president Viktor Yanukovich from office with a general strike after hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against his decision to abandon an integration pact with the European Union.

Weekend demonstrations, which saw violent clashes with police, drew up to 350,000 people, the biggest public rally in the ex-Soviet state since the “Orange revolution” against sleaze and electoral fraud nine years ago.

Prime minister Mykola Azarov yesterday accused the opposition of planning to seize the parliament.

Mr Yanukovich appealed for calm, saying protests should be peaceful and law-abiding.

“Any bad peace is better than a good war,” Mr Yanukovich said in his first comment on the unrest. “Everyone must observe the laws of our state.”

Mr Yanukovich’s decision to abandon a trade pact with the EU and instead seek closer economic ties with Russia has stirred deep passions in a country where many people yearn to join the European mainstream and escape Moscow’s orbit.

Russian president Vladimir Putin blamed outside actors for the protests, which he said amounted to an attempt to unsettle Ukraine’s legitimate rulers.

“This reminds me more of a pogrom than a revolution,” Mr Putin said.

Protesters in the capital remained defiant, with hundreds of demonstrators occupying city hall on Sunday. Taras Revunets said: “We have no other choice but to defend ourselves and the gains we have made.”

Ukraine is divided between those who see stability in close ties with Russia and those who see a more prosperous future with the EU. Since his election in February 2010, Mr Yanukovich has sought to reassure Ukrainians that he could pursue close ties with Europe while managing relations with Moscow.

But even some supporters were shocked by the abruptness with which his government announced it was suspending work on a long-awaited pact with the EU in favour of reviving economic ties with Russia.

Scenes over the weekend of police beating demonstrators hardened opinion against him.

“Yanukovich will do whatever Putin tells him to do,” said former Yanukovich voter Oleksander, 49, on Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters are setting up tented camps.

“He’s been losing his legitimacy for a long time. His decision to send police in to beat up children was the last straw.”

Thousands of protesters listened to music and strolled through the city centre yesterday behind makeshift barricades they had erected overnight from city benches, commandeered police barriers and parts of a giant artificial Christmas tree.

Traffic was cut off in central Kiev but people still shopped and walked to work, while opposition figures made speeches.

Police, who clashed with protesters at several spots around Independence Square at the weekend, have since withdrawn and were little seen in the city centre yesterday.