KIEV: The pro-EU protest movement in Ukraine Sunday appeared to lose its momentum after the government’s bailout deal with Russia, as the latest rally in Kiev drew far fewer demonstrators.
Some 40,000 showed up at Independence Square for the fifth in a series of Sunday protests against the U-turn by the government in November, when it decided not to sign the Association Agreement for closer ties with the European Union under Kremlin pressure.
All the previous rallies had attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters, making the turnout at the latest rally the lowest since the Sunday protests began on Nov. 24, AFP correspondents said.
The protest movement has so far been at a loss as to how to respond to a controversial deal clinched by President Viktor Yanukovych in Moscow this week for billions of dollars in Russian help to bail out Ukraine’s ailing economy.
One of the chief opposition leaders, the world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, told those gathered Sunday that the protests would continue.
“We are going to fight and we are not going to go anywhere from here,” he said.
“We demand not only the resignation of the government but snap presidential elections,” he added.
The protesters have occupied Independence Square – known in Kiev as the Maidan – since late November and erected barricades to prevent security forces from entering the area.
Several police attempts to shift the protest camp ended in failure and provoked outrage inside and outside Ukraine over the use of force against peaceful protesters.
Protest leaders said they now hoped to create a national “Maidan” movement, including in Yanukovych’s stronghold in the east of the country.
“Every person who wants a fair and honest future must be in favor of this movement,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the opposition party of jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko.
“Our Maidan and millions of Ukrainians are awaiting the return of Yulia,” who is still in detention after her controversial conviction for abuse of power while in office.
Sunday’s protest dispersed peacefully, with just a few thousand people left to listen to a concert by the evening.
However, many of the protesters were unable to hide their disappointment with the results of their rebellion, which at one point many analysts thought had a fighting chance of unseating Yanukovych.
“The protest is at an impasse. The protesters did everything that they could. Now it is the opposition who must work behind the scenes to weaken the authorities,” said Ostap Nikitin, a Kiev student.
During talks with Yanukovych at the Kremlin Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to buy $15 billion of Ukraine’s debt in Eurobonds and slash its gas bill by a third.
The lavish package should stave off the threat of a default by Ukraine on its sovereign debt and steady its struggling hryvnia currency.
In a major boost for Yanukovych, the package came with no strings attached – in public at least – with Putin making clear they had not even discussed the issue of Ukraine joining the Kremlin-led Customs Union.
Such a move could have enraged the protesters and marked an irreversible move away from Europe toward Russia.
“Ukraine joining the Customs Union would have made the protesters angry but it is hard to criticize the authorities for lowering the gas price,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta political research center.
“The authorities are stronger than they were in 2004” when the popular Orange Revolution uprising forced the annulment of elections initially claimed by Yanukovych, he added.
EU leaders Friday denounced Russian pressure on Ukraine, saying countries had a right “to make their own foreign policy decisions without undue external pressure.”