More than 10,000 people gathered in central Kiev yesterday for the first major opposition rally of the new year as protests against Ukraine’s scrapping of an EU pact stretched into a seventh week.
Opposition leaders including former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko urged the crowd to continue the standoff on Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, where protesters have been camped out since late November.
“The authorities are pretending they cannot hear us. I know it’s hard for us, but we have enough strength to win,” Klitschko said.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych last month triggered massive protests by deciding not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union under pressure from the Kremlin.
He then caused further anger by violently dispersing protesters, many of them students, using tear gas and stun grenades. At their height, the opposition protests drew as many as 200,000 people to the Maidan.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December responded by offering Ukraine a $15bn bail-out package and slashing the price Ukraine has to pay for natural gas imports. Klitschko, who leads the UDAR (Punch)opposition party, said that a new wave of protests would begin after public holidays to celebrate Orthodox Christmas today and tomorrow.
He also announced plans for a general strike, which he said would be “first a strike warning and then a real one if the authorities don’t want to listen to us.”
“I am sure we will force the authorities to take the citizens into account,” he said.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk also urged the demonstrators to maintain their protest camp on the Maidan, which they have sealed off with improvised barricades. “This year will be a very difficult one for us. We must hold onto the Maidan,” he said.
Supporters at the rally expressed determination to continue the protest.
“I will definitely keep coming to Kiev, because the authorities are just waiting for support to weaken in order to disperse the Maidan. But people are ready to fight to the end,” said teacher Olena Bilyk, who had travelled from the southern Mykolaiv region.
Klitschko said that the opposition needed more than “moral support” in its campaign against the government.
Addressing a rally of some 10,000 supporters in central Kiev, Klitschko renewed calls for the European Union to impose sanctions on the country’s leadership.
“Moral support for opponents of the government is not enough,” he said.
Meanwhile The Independent reports that a parliamentarian who organised Ukraine’s pro-EU protests, in which thousands demanded the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych, was assaulted on Friday night in the latest in a series of violent attacks on the demonstrations’ organisers.
Andriy Illienko, a Svoboda Party MP, and party activist and lawyer Sydir Kizin were leaving a police station in central Kiev when they were set upon by a gang of youths. Around a dozen men reportedly kicked and punched the two men but fled when the attack was interrupted by two passers-by, who Svoboda said had rescued their members from “probable death”.
An ambulance crew at the scene told The Independent yesterday that the MP had suffered a fractured jaw and concussion.
Shortly before the attack, Illienko had been speaking to officers at Shevchenko District police station about an incident in which the Svoboda Party accused police of conspiring with nationalist marchers who threw flaming torches at a Kiev hotel on New Year’s Day.
In a statement responding to the assault on Illienko, the party said: “The Svoboda Party considers this attack as a particularly cynical attempt on the life of a statesman. This attack was planned in advance, with thugs and police acting as a coalition.”
A recent string of attacks has targeted the opposition and pro-EU activists who have led five weeks of protests against the government’s rejection of a free trade and political integration agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.
On Christmas Eve, a pro-EU activist, Dmitry Pylypets, was stabbed outside his apartment in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. Opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovol was beaten unconscious after assailants drove her car off the road on Christmas Day.
In the past month, police have raided an opposition headquarters and three critical news outlets, seizing hard drives and computer servers. Authorities have twice used force to try to clear protesters from Kiev’s Independence Square.
Police announced yesterday that they had opened an investigation into the latest attack but had no suspects.