Ukraine government holds on as Yanukovich heads for China

Opponents hope for re-run of ‘Orange Revolution’ which doomed president’s first term

Ukraine's embattled government held onto power in parliament today but president Viktor Yanukovich left on a trip to China with much of the centre of the capital in the hands of furious protesters who say they will not leave until he quits.

Mr Yanukovich's decision to spurn a trade and integration pact with the European Union has split the country between those who see its future with Europe and those who yearn for better ties with its old Soviet masters in Moscow.

Opponents hope to mount a re-run of the 2004-2005 "Orange Revolution" that overthrew Ukraine's post-Soviet order and doomed Mr Yanukovich's first attempt to become president.

While helmeted riot police faced off in freezing conditions against thousands of pro-EU protesters at parliament's doors, lawmakers inside rejected an opposition demand for a vote of no-confidence in the government of prime minister Mykola Azarov.

But even that victory was limited: the vast majority of pro-government deputies either cast votes abstaining or did not vote at all, a sign of apparent discontent in their ranks. At least two members of Mr Yanukovich’s Regions Party faction in parliament have defected.

"I ask Yanukovich - resign!" Vitaly Klitschko, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion whose physically imposing presence has helped him emerge as a leader of the opposition, said in parliament.

The prime minister apologised for police violence against protesters during demonstrations, but was forced to speak over a barrage of catcalls from opposition lawmakers who shouted at him for speaking in Russian, rather than Ukraine’s state language.

Protesters see the government’s November 21st rejection of an EU trade deal as a fundamental shift in the future outlook of their country, away from the European mainstream and back into the orbit of Moscow.

Since his rejection in the Orange Revolution, Mr Yanukovich returned to win an election by promising to bring Ukraine closer to Europe while managing relations with Russia, a major trading partner. Opponents, and some former supporters, see latest his lurch east as a betrayal.

Protesters speak of fears that Mr Yanukovich might order a military crackdown. Addressing the absent president in parliament, Klitschko said: “Don’t do anything stupid - don’t drive yourself and the country into a dead end.”

In Brussels, US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke directly of the threat of unrest: "We urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom and in opportunity and prosperity."

Nato urged Ukraine to "uphold the freedom of expression and assembly," and called for dialogue.

At Kiev’s city hall, now an organisational hub for protesters who have occupied the building since Sunday, people dozed on the second floor while others passed through the revolving doors for handouts of food and warm clothing.

In the vast central Independence Square activists gathered signatures calling for Mr Yanukovich’s impeachment. Protesters warmed themselves at barricades of plywood, park benches and the remnants of an artificial Christmas tree. As in 2004, tented camps and supplies of food and warm clothing make clear they are hunkering down for a long campaign to bring down Yanukovich.

Protesters have shut the main government headquarters for two days. Mr Azarov said his cabinet would meet in the building tomorrow, potentially setting up a showdown.