KIEV: Ukraine’s opposition Tuesday called for sustained pressure from the street after the government survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
Incensed by an 11-hour U-turn on a deal for closer ties with the European Union, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets last month and are now demanding President Viktor Yanukovych’s resignation.
The weekend witnessed Ukraine’s largest protests since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution and around 30,000 were back in the street in central Kiev Tuesday evening.
“I am calling on you not to give up,” boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told the protesters after the government survived the no-confidence vote.
The motion mustered only 186 of the 226 votes required to pass.
With Yanukovych’s Regions Party in control of Parliament, the motion always looked doomed but the opposition has been seeking to keep the initiative.
The opposition initially wanted Yanukovych to sign the pact they hoped would tie Ukraine’s future to the EU and shake the yoke of its old master Russia.
But his failure to ink the deal in Vilnius Friday and a violent police crackdown on demonstrators the following day turned the protests into a drive for regime change.
Yanukovych, who left the country on a three-day visit to China Tuesday, has admitted the police “went too far” at the weekend and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also offered an apology.
“I will draw firm conclusions from what happened and make serious personnel changes in the government,” Azarov said.
Smoke bombs and stun grenades were used when police confronted some of the 100,000 people who poured onto the streets of Kiev Sunday to demand snap elections.
Several dozen people were injured.
Thousands of demonstrators took control of Kiev’s iconic Independence Square Monday, the focal point of the Orange Revolution, and the opposition called for a nationwide strike.
Azarov said Ukrainian delegations would travel to both Brussels and Moscow Wednesday for talks on trade.
“We want to strengthen our strategic partnership with the Russian Federation,” he said in a statement.
But former President and Orange Revolution co-leader Viktor Yushchenko argued that, at this stage, the authorities needed to sit down for talks with the opposition.
“We must immediately call together a roundtable and the initiative must come from the president and the opposition,” he said in comments broadcast on a Russian opposition channel.
“The situation could spiral out of control in the next few days.”
Speaking Monday, Yanukovych defended his decision to walk away from the EU deal.
“What kind of an agreement is that when they take and bend us over?” Yanukovych said.
The EU had set the release of Yanukovych’s top rival Yulia Tymoshenko, who in 2011 was sentenced to seven years on abuse-of-power charges, as a key condition for signing the deal with Ukraine.
The opposition charges Yanukovych wants to keep the figurehead of the Orange Revolution out of the game until the 2015 presidential elections.
Opposition leaders including Klitschko and former Economic Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk say the government betrayed the Ukrainian people by scrapping plans to sign the EU deal under pressure from Russia.
They hope to turn anger over corruption and economic woes into what they have called a new “revolution.”
Economists have warned the new turmoil could exacerbate economic troubles. The political crisis has seen prices on Ukrainian bonds drop sharply in the past few days on fears that a breakdown of aid and trade negotiations with the West may force the cash-strapped government to default on its debts and sharply devalue the currency.
Both the Ukrainian government and Russia have attacked the protests as not legitimate nor representative.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to pull Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union, said late Monday that protests “seem more like a pogrom than a revolution”.
Azarov Monday said the situation bore the hallmarks of a “coup d’etat.”
The United States and France challenged that statement. “We certainly don’t consider peaceful demonstrations coup attempts,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in Washington.
“This is not a coup d’etat. I haven’t seen a military intervention and the characteristics of a coup d’etat are not supported,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.