About 200,000 anti-government protesters converged on the central square of Ukraine’s capital yesterday in a dramatic show of morale after nearly four weeks of daily protests.
However, the rally was overshadowed by suggestions that their goal of closer ties with Europe may be imperilled.
A much smaller demonstration of government supporters, about 15,000, was taking place less than a mile away from Kiev’s Independence Square. Anti-government protesters have set up an extensive tent camp there and erected barricades of snow hardened with freezing water and studded with scrap wood and other junk.
US senators John McCain and Chris Murphy joined the anti-government demonstration to express support for them and their European ambitions, threatening sanctions against the government of president Viktor Yanukovich if authorities use more violence to disperse the protests.
The protests began on 21 November after Mr Yanukovich announced he would not sign a long-awaited agreement to strengthen trade and political ties with the European Union and instead focus on Russia.
In the face of the protests, which present a serious challenge to Mr Yanukovich’s leadership, Ukrainian officials this week renewed talks with the EU and promised that they would sign the deal once some issues are worked out.
However, the EU’s top official on expansion issues, Stefan Fuele, cast doubt on the prospect yesterday, saying on his Twitter account that work is “on hold” and that the words and actions of Mr Yanukovich and his government are “further and further apart”.
Mr Yanukovich backed away from the agreement on the grounds that the EU was not providing adequate compensation to his economically struggling nation for potential trade losses with Russia. Russia, which for centuries controlled or exerted heavy influence on Ukraine, wants the country to join a customs union, analogous to the EU, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The opposition says that union would effectively reconstitute the Soviet Union and remain suspicious that Mr Yanukovich might agree to it when he meets Russian president Vladimir Putin tomorrow.
Arseniy Yatsenyk, a top opposition leader, warned Mr Yanukovich against making such a move.
“If the agreement is signed, he can remain in Moscow and not return to Kiev,” he told the crowd at the protest on Independence Square.
Yuri Lutsenko, another opposition politician and former interior minister, told the protesters they were fighting for Ukraine’s independence.
“What is happening on the [square] today? It is an anticolonial revolution,” he said. “Above all, Ukrainians turned out to say to Moscow: ‘We are no longer under your command, we are an independent country’.”
Mr McCain, a Republican, and Mr Murphy, a Democrat, told reporters after the rally that sanctions were possible and “that there will be consequences to our relationship if there is any more violence on the streets of Kiev. We are here because your peaceful process and peaceful protest is inspiring your country and inspiring the world.”
The mood was starkly different at the smaller pro-government rally across town. Many people from eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial heartland and Mr Yanukovich’s support base, are against the protesters in Kiev and want the country to have closer economic ties with Russia.
“We’ll become the slaves of Europe if we go into it,” said 43-year-old Segei Antonovich. “Look at history – only union with Russia can save Ukraine from catastrophe.”