Thousands of civilians in Ukraine called for the President Viktor F. Yanukovich's resignation during sometimes violent protests this weekend.
The biggest protest took place in Independence Square in Kiev, the country's capital, where violent clashes with police underscored the country's fury over his last minute decision to halt a trade deal with the European Union. Reuters estimates 350,000 people gathered across the country Sunday, in the capital and in smaller cities. The New York Times says more than 100,000 people turned out in Kiev alone. The BBC settled between somewhere those two numbers.
"This is not a meeting. This is not a rally. This is revolution," Yury Lutsenko, an opposition leader and former interior minister, told the crowds Sunday in Kiev. "Revolution!" the crowds chanted back.
Protests have gone on for the 11 days since Yanukovich nixed the E.U. deal. But Sunday's gathering, with its humongous civilian crowd, and the country's top opposition politicians in attendance, was easily the biggest day yet. The protests turned violent, again, at the outskirts of Kiev as some civilians clashed with police, who used stun guns and smoke grenades to disperse crowds. Protesters, joined by some opposition politicians, invaded Kiev's City Hall, and held meetings inside office rooms normally reserved for civic politicians.
At one point a group of protesters occupied a piece of construction equipment and drove it into a police line. The number of civilian casualties is unknown. Ukraine's Interior Ministry said roughly 100 police officers were injured in the protests. This video emerged late Sunday showing the aggressive, violent tactics used by riot police to disperse parts of the crowd. A warning, this video is fairly graphic:
Last week, Yanukovich scuttled a proposed political and trade agreement with the European Union in favor of new dealings with Russia, the country's former Soviet overlord. Reuters reports Ukraine faced "pressure" from Moscow for potentially signing the E.U. deal. The Guardian reports Moscow threatened "punitive measures" if Ukraine aligned itself with the E.U., and promised economic relief in exchange. At the last minute, Yanukovich accepted Russia's offer. His people did not.
Ukrainians see their future aligned with the E.U., and wish to break free from the chains of the past. Per The New York Times:
Many Ukrainians view the agreements with Europe as crucial to a brighter economic and political future and to breaking free, once and for all, from the grip of Russia and Ukraine’s Soviet past. The steady escalation of the protests — and the violent crackdown — has created a volatile situation.
Saturday was a turning point for opposition protesters after police violently dispersed a small, leftover crowd still gathered at the end of the day, according to the Guardian. "The city authorities rather implausibly claimed they needed the square empty in order to erect a giant Christmas tree," the British newspaper reports. Protesters communicated online and, after the city tried to ban people from gathering in Independence Square, flocked to the city centre by the thousands.
Cracks are starting to show within the Ukraine government. Serhiy Lyovochkin, the president administrative number two, tried to resign this week. Three other lawmakers turned in their papers. Rumors are swirling saying the army will side with the opposition. The country's wealthy and influential financial ruling class are maneuvering in anticipation of a potential power shift. Again, the Times explains:
There were also signs that some of Ukraine’s wealthiest business leaders, the so-called oligarchs, were turning against Mr. Yanukovich or at least positioning themselves for a potentially big shift in the government.
[Yegor Sobolev], a former journalist and now a civic activist, noted that he had been invited to appear on a prime-time television show on the Ukraina channel, which is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man. Mr. Sobolev said he viewed the invitation as an effort to reach out to the opposition forces rallying against Mr. Yanukovich.
Opposition party leaders have aligned themselves with the protesters. The Udar party's Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxer turned politician, and the nationalist Svoboda party's Oleg Tyagnibok both attended protests Sunday. The Fatherland coalition, led by an imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost to Yanukovich in a 2010 election, also supports the movement. Many believe Klitschko, the current WBC world heavyweight champion, "is now seen as the main threat to Yanukovych at the next presidential elections in 2015," the Guardian reports. "On Sunday evening, he called on his supporters to remain calm, and denounced the attempts to seize buildings by force."
He may not have to wait that long.
[All images via the AP]