Ukraine's leader calls for calm as opposition bids to topple government

Russian leader calls protests a “pogrom” to oust Ukrainian president

A  Ukrainian monk chants slogans during a rally at the central Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday, December 2nd. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

A Ukrainian monk chants slogans during a rally at the central Independence square in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday, December 2nd. Photograph: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Tue, Dec 3, 2013, 01:00

Ukraine’s leaders have refused to back down in a confrontation with hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets to protest against the collapse of a landmark deal with the European Union and violent conduct by riot police.

President Viktor Yanukovich said last night security forces had “crossed the line” in their brutal treatment of protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square on Saturday, but he also denounced opposition leaders for occupying Kiev’s city hall and his prime minister accused them of planning to seize parliament amid rallies he claimed were spiralling dangerously out of control.

Russia also weighed into the mounting crisis, with President Vladimir Putin denouncing the protests as “more like a pogrom than a revolution” and suggesting they were fuelled less by public anger over the failed EU deal than the desire of the opposition to oust Mr Yanukovich. After hundreds of thousands of people thronged Kiev on Sunday, large crowds gathered again yesterday and blockaded government headquarters, preventing staff entering the building and chanting for Mr Yanukovich and the government of prime minister Mykola Azarov to resign.

In western Ukraine, where pro-EU feeling and backing for jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko is strongest, the mayors and councils of three cities declared their support for the opposition and called on workers to join a national strike. Anti-government rallies were much smaller in eastern Ukraine, the largely Russian-speaking area that is the stronghold of Mr Yanukovich and his allies, where most local councils have given him strong support and denounced his opponents as puppets of the West. At the insistence of opposition parties, parliament is due today to vote on a motion of no confidence in the government, but it is not clear if a number of reported defections from Mr Yanukovich’s ruling Regions Party will be enough to oust Mr Azarov’s cabinet.

Leaders of the opposition, who have established a “revolutionary headquarters” in Kiev city hall after seizing it on Sunday night, said they would not stop their protests until Mr Azarov, his government and Mr Yanukovich were removed and Ms Tymoshenko was released from jail.

“There should be a total reset of power,” said world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who leads the Udar opposition party. “In Ukraine ministers change, and the government, but the situation doesn’t change. We should change the system. We won’t accept anything else.”

Amid suggestions from pro-Yanukovich politicians that the opposition should end its protests if the cabinet is replaced, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who now leads Ms Tymoshenko’s party, insisted a new government could be appointed only after snap parliamentary and presidential elections.

Mr Yanukovich and Mr Azarov staunchly defended their positions yesterday, however, rejecting responsibility for the actions of the riot police. They also insisted they were right to postpone a historic EU deal that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West, saying it would have damaged their country’s ailing economy.

“I tell you absolutely openly that neither the president nor the prime minister knew about that operation,” Mr Azarov said about the riot police’s dispersal of a crowd from Independence Square on Saturday, when they were filmed punching, kicking and beating, with batons, protesters. Dozens of people were injured.

Mr Azarov suggested the police had been provoked, saying they “keep calm as long as they are not subjected to violence.” Mr Yanukovich said riot police had used too much force against protesters, “although we understand that they were somehow provoked to act like this”.