Pro-EU Ukrainian protesters on Sunday toppled a statue of the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin in Kiev after hundreds of thousands massed for a new protest in an increasingly tense standoff with President Viktor Yanukovych’s government.
The protesters had filled Independence Square in central Kiev and surrounding streets to bursting point to denounce Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU pact under Kremlin pressure, in the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
In a hugely symbolic denouement to the rally, dozens of masked protesters, some brandishing flags of ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, tore down the 3.4 meter (11 feet) high statue of the Bolshevik leader after putting a rope noose round Lenin’s neck.
“Hang the Commie!” screamed the protesters.
They then hacked away with axes at the remnants of the monument lying flat on the ground. Parts of the statue including one of its hands were afterwards triumphantly brandished at the main demonstration on Independence Square.
“What an unpleasant suicide!” later quipped Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnybok.
The protesters installed the Ukrainian state flag and the red and black banner of the wartime anti-Communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army on the empty plinth to the cries of “Thank God” and “Finally” from some 1,500 people at the scene.
Police opened a criminal probe into “mass riots” over the felling of the monument.
‘He is no longer president’
Upping the stakes in the confrontation, demonstrators had earlier erected one-and-a-half metre (five feet) high barricades outside the seat of government which would make it impossible for ministers to go to their offices by car.
Jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko said the opposition was demanding the “immediate” resignation of Yanukovych, in a no-holds-barred statement read by her daughter.
“He is no longer the president of our state, he is a tyrant who must answer for every drop of blood that has been shed,” Yevgenia Tymoshenko quoted her mother as saying, a giant portrait of the former prime minister sitting next to the stage.
Soon after the rally’s speeches ended, the Security Service (SBU) said it had opened an investigation into alleged attempts by politicians to seize power, in an apparent bid by the state to target key opposition figures.
The size of the protest, the third mass rally in successive weekends, increased the pressure on Yanukovych who further galvanised his opponents by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in almost total secrecy on Friday.
The party UDAR (Punch) of world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko claimed “nearly a million” had turned out in Kiev.
Police estimated the turnout at 100,000 and Agence France-Presse correspondents said there were several hundred thousand present.
State of emergency
The opposition is calling another major rally for Monday in a bid to sustain the momentum and force concessions from Yanukovych.
“The whole of Kiev is Maidan now,” said opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, referring to Independence Square by its local name. He claimed the Yanukovych administration planned to impose a state of emergency.
Putin has said the protests looked more “like a pogrom than a revolution” but the West has urged the authorities to heed the demands of the opposition.
In a sign of the West’s growing support for the opposition, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he would meet Klitschko for talks in Paris on Wednesday.
Der Spiegel reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European conservative parties planned to step up support for the pugilist, including through joint public appearances.
Polls show that Yanukovych would lose to Klitschko in a 2015 presidential poll if that election went into a second round run-off.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to travel to Ukraine this week.
Yanukovych discussed the “situation in Ukraine and ways to solve it” with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, his office said.
The protests in Ukraine have raged for over two weeks after the government announced it was halting the work on political and free trade agreements with the European Union.
Protesters have seized control of Independence Square, setting up a tent city, and persisted with a blockade of key government buildings.
The opposition threatened to also blockade Yanukovych’s luxurious Mezhygirya residence on the banks of the Dnipro River outside Kiev if he did not dismiss the government within the next 48 hours.
The president on Friday incensed protesters further by discussing a strategic partnership treaty with Putin, who wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.
Analysts believe Russia may have offered Ukraine cheaper gas and billions of dollars in aid in exchange for joining the Customs Union at Yanukovych’s closed-door meeting with Putin on Friday in Sochi. AFP