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Another Sunday, another big rally

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Dec. 15, 2013, 11:22 p.m. | Ukraine — by Olga Rudenko

People shout slogans and wave Ukrainian and European Union flags as a woman holds a picture of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko during a mass rally on Independence Square in Kyiv, on Dec. 15. The European Union suspended association talks with Ukraine as more than 200,000 protesters massed in the heart of Kiev demanding that the government recommit itself to the West. The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since President Viktor Yanukovych's surprise decision last month to ditch a landmark EU agreement and seek closer ties with historic master Russia. AFP PHOTO/ VIKTOR DRACHEV
© AFP

Olga Rudenko

For the fourth consecutive Sunday tens of thousands of protesters descended on central Kyiv to express dissatisfaction with their government. In all of the ups and downs of EuroMaidan, it's hard to tell which side has the momentum at the moment -- President Viktor Yanukovych or those demanding his resignation.

The protest movement in Ukraine, now in its fourth week, still turns out big crowds -- ranging wildly on Dec. 15 from 20,000 people by police estimates to 200,000 people by Interfax-Ukraine news agency's count. The real number appeared to be closer to the higher estimate. 

While the demonstrators continue winning over allies at home and internationally, it's still not clear how they will achieve their aim of forcing Yanukovych to step down and call early presidential and parliament elections, among other demands.

After the government's numerous stumbles, including police brutality that triggered a backlash and enlivened the protest movement, Yanukovych may be content to just wait out the crowd as the winter holidays approach amid sub-zero temperatures. However, given the government's frequent missteps in responding to the crowd's demands, EuroMaidan could stay invigorated if Yanukovych takes more unpopular actions -- such as mak the first steps to joining the Russian-led Customs Union when he visits Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Dec. 17.

Despite the throngs of people on Dec. 15 -- including a rival pro-government rally -- no serious violence or clashes were reported nor arrests.

Political analyst Volodymr Fesenko thinks that with the Christmas and New Year's holidays coming, and weariness growing, the street action may wind down. “The opposition understands that it’s hard to hold mass protests for much longer. And people in the government understand it too, and try to play for time."

But with the European Union today, namely Stefan Fuele tweeting that talks of a far-reaching political and trade deal being put on hold until the Ukrainian side shows specific intent on signing the prenegotiated and initialed deal, Yanukovych is biding for time ahead of his Dec. 17 trip to Moscow.

Started on Nov. 21 as a spontaneous civil uprising against Yanukovych's refusal to sign a political and trade pact with the European Union, the EuroMaidan movement gained new verve after riot police attacked demonstrators on Nov. 30 and injured several dozen of them. Since then, a steady procession of moral support has come from politicians internationally while the movement has been joined by an impressive segment of Ukrainian political, business and civic leaders.

More came and chimed in their support after police unsuccessfully attempted to break up the rally on Dec. 11 hours after European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton attended the rally and when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in town to address the escalating political crisis.

Opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok and Arseniy Yatseniuk addressed people from the stage at the Independence Square on Dec. 15, as did visiting U.S. senators Christopher Murphy and John McCain, among the numerous politicians who have lent their support.

The demands of the protesters, as listed by opposition parties’ leaders, include the impeachment of Yanukovych, dismissal of the Cabinet of Ministers, early presidential and parliamentary elections, the release of all political prisoners, punishment for police guilty of beating protesters on Nov. 30 and steps to ensure that the EU and Ukraine sign an association agreement. That deal looked even further out of reach on Dec. 15 after EU Enlargement Commissioner Stephen Fuele said the EU is stopping talks because of the Yanukovych administration's unreasonable demands. Ukrainian authorities have sought $27 billion in aid to sign.

Pensioner Klavdiya Lavreyeva from Odesa stayed in the Kyiv protesters’ camp for five days, then took a short trip home and came back just in time for Dec. 15 rally. Lavreyeva voted for Yanukovych in 2010, but now she sleeps in a tent at Independence Square to seek better government and president.

“Yanukovych promised a better life. I really trusted him, but in the first year after elections he turned out to be a disappointment. He only did good for himself and his family. Now I believe in Yuliya (Tymoshenko),” Lavreyeva said, referring to the imprisoned former prime minister, while sitting in a plastic chair next to the tent at Independence Square, with opposition leaders heard speaking from stage at the background.

Two days before the Dec. 15 rally took place, the General Prosecutor’s Office interrogated three top officials on their possible role in the police crackdown on protesters Nov. 30. According to the protocols of the interrogations that were leaked to Ukrainska Pravda, head of Kyiv state administration Olexander Popov and deputy secretary of National Security Council Volodymyr Sinkevych said that the order to clear the Independence Square from protesters was given by the head of National Security and Defense Council head Andriy Kliuyev.

Reacting to the news, oppositional lawmakers Viktor Chumak and Andriy Grytsenko called for Kliuyev to be fired.

“The interrogations are a small victory of protesters,” Fesenko said. “The fact that protocols (official statements) were leaked shows that there are contradictions inside the government. But surely, it is not the end of the crackdown case.”

At the rally, Yatseniuk announced that opposition lawmakers once again started gathering signatures for vote on dismissal of Cabinet of Ministers. Opposition failed its first attempt to oust the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Dec. 3, when the parliament didn’t vote for dismissal. The next parliament session will take place in two days on Dec. 17.

On the same day, Yanukovych plans to visit Moscow to sign a pack of trade agreeements with Russia.

Lavreyeva from Independence Square hopes that authorities will finally listen to the people of Ukraine, but sees no signs of it yet.

“They don’t listen to us at all. So we must stay here until they start listening," she said emotionally. "More people should come to show that they are fed up with what is going on in Ukraine."

Kyiv Post lifestyle editor Olga Rudenko can be reached at rudenko@kyivpost.com

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