KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s opposition, preparing for what it hopes will be a gigantic protest rally Sunday, says it will negotiate with President Viktor Yanukovych only if he fires the government and appoints a new one committed to deepening European integration.
Around 20,000 demonstrators crowded into Kiev’s Independence Square on a windy and snowy night Saturday, but organizers of the protests, which are now in their third week, are calling for a massive turnout Sunday. A throng estimated at 300,000 or more showed up for a similar rally a week ago.
That turnout reflected wide anger over police violence against demonstrators the previous two days, and there are no signs that anger has dissipated. The square holds an extensive tent camp for protesters, including field kitchens, and demonstrators are occupying two nearby buildings, one of them functioning as an improvised opposition headquarters and media center.
The protests started after Yanukovych backed away from signing an association agreement with the European Union that would have deepened economic ties, thereby diminishing neighboring Russia’s influence.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the largest opposition faction in parliament, told reports Saturday that Yanukovych must dismiss the government, and “we are ready to start the dialogue only if the president makes the first step.”
Opposition lawmakers tried on Tuesday to fire the government in a no-confidence vote in parliament, but fell well short of the needed majority.
That government must be replaced by one “that clearly sets the target to sign an association agreement and resume negotiations with the IMF.” The opposition sees aid from the International Monetary Fund as key to helping Ukraine through economic troubles that have made Yanukovych lean toward Russia.
Russia wants Ukraine to join a customs union also including Belarus and Kazakhstan that would be a counterweight to the EU and put pressure on Yanukovych to shelve the EU agreement.
Yatsenyuk called the customs union “a new version of the Soviet Union.”
Distress over the customs was high after Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Friday. The leaders’ offices on Saturday said the presidents didn’t discuss the customs union, but suspicions persisted.
“It was clear that [Yanukovych’s] way to the European Union was blocked from the start,” Yatsenyuk said. “It was a big auction – who is to buy Ukraine.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Saturday in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the presidents paid special attention to “cooperation in the energy sphere.” Ukraine’s dependence on Russian natural gas gives Moscow considerable leverage, and economically struggling Ukraine has sought to negotiate lower prices.
Former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, who was propelled to power by 2003 mass protests that prefigured Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, met on Saturday with Ukrainian opposition leader Viltali Klitschko and spoke before protesters, wearing a scarf in the colors of Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag.
“What we are seeing in Kiev is a raider attack on Ukraine by Vladimir Putin, an impudent and unprecedented attempt to steal the country and its future,” Saakashvili said. “Putin’s Russia says: We can turn your life into hell, we can hit you hard. This is the logic of a bandit, a racketeer.”
Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of Russian parliament’s lower house, quickly responded on Twitter in blunt language that reflected the high level of Russia-EU tensions: “It’s a raider attack, but by Brussels, not Moscow. They take you to paradise by the throat.”
Also Saturday, the Interior Ministry said police have placed the Kiev broadcasting center under heavy guard, saying the move was necessary after hearing protesters express intentions to march on the facility and block access to the building.
The center houses the studios of several TV channels, including the national First Channel, which on Saturday was hosting a show featuring an array of government ministers.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Kiev contributed to this report.