KIEV – At least 200,000 pro-European demonstrators began a mass rally in the Ukrainian capital Sunday in a fresh show of force against President Viktor Yanukovych after his failure to sign a key EU agreement.
Opposition parties have called on “all Ukrainians” to mass on Independence Square, where demonstrators angered by Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU pact have held rolling protests for over three weeks.
As protesters wearing the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag packed into the iconic square, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said Brussels was suspending work on the Association Agreement that would have put the country on the path to EU integration.
“Work on hold,” Fuele tweeted, saying further discussions required a “clear commitment (to) sign” from the Ukrainian side.
Yanukovych is under intense pressure to decide whether to align his nation with the West by signing a deal with the EU, or to join a Moscow-led Customs Union.
He is set to travel to Moscow on Tuesday to meet President Vladimir Putin for talks expected to centre on a proposed free trade deal with Russia fiercely opposed by the demonstrators.
“This is the last chance for Ukraine as an independent country,” said protester Leonid Khusachenko, a 43-year-old history teacher from the western city of Lviv, ahead of Sunday’s rally.
Ukraine’s security services were on high alert as around 5,000 Yanukovych supporters bussed in from the provinces began a rival rally in a park near Independence Square, vowing “non-stop protests”.
But Khusachenko, sitting by a towering barricade of snow-filled bags, wood scraps and barbed wire, a Ukrainian flag wrapped around his neck, said he did not believe there would be a repeat of last week’s crackdown by riot police given the presence of the world’s media on the square.
Opposition leader and heavyweight champion Vitaly Klitschko had said ahead of the rally that “all Ukrainians must go to the Maidan to voice their aspirations to live in a modern European country,” using the Ukrainian name for the square.
“We see the attempts to frighten us, but they will fail,” he said.
The latest mass protest comes days after a failed attempt by riot police to drive the protest camp out of the iconic square, ramping up tensions in the ex-Soviet country’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
Protesters have been camped out on the square where the Orange Revolution unfolded in 2004 for more than three weeks since Yanukovych failed to sign the Association Agreement.
The party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said on its website that Sunday’s rally would feature “leaders of opposition parties, public figures and foreign guests, particularly American senators.”
Outspoken Republican Senator John McCain flew into Kiev on Saturday and held meetings with Klitschko, nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok and the head of Tymoshenko’s party, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Posting a picture on Twitter of tens of thousands packing Independence Square for a concert and holding up the lit screens of their mobile phones, he praised the crowd for “an incredible show of patriotism.”
Yanukovych moved to appease the protest movement Saturday by suspending Kiev’s mayor and the deputy head of his security council over a brutal crackdown on the protesters’ camp on November 30.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general meanwhile said he would press for abuse of power charges against Kiev police chief and his deputy.
Opposition leaders welcomed the moves, but said they did not go far enough, calling for the dismissal of the interior minister and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
Supporters of Yanukovych have set up a camp in the central Mariinsky park, with braziers, a field kitchen and dozens of large army tents
“With our people you can’t be too liberal,” said pensioner Galina Beresneva, one of around 5,000 gathered in the park.
“If the president made a mistake, that doesn’t mean you need to gather in the Maidan.”