Protestors fail to oust Ukranian government
NATALIA ZINETS AND THOMAS GROVE
Ukraine's embattled government held onto power in parliament today but faced determined public protests and the rising risk of a financial crisis after spurning closer ties with the European Union under pressure from Russia.
With protesters blockading central Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovich flew to China on a three-day state visit seeking loans and investment.
He left a country in turmoil, torn once more between East and West in what his opponents hope will become a re-run of the 2004-5 'Orange Revolution' that overthrew Ukraine's post-Soviet order.
Lawmakers rejected an opposition demand for a vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, while outside the chamber riot police faced off in freezing conditions against several thousand pro-EU protesters.
The vast majority of pro-government deputies, however, either cast votes abstaining or did not vote at all, a warning to Azarov of discontent in his ranks. At least two members of Yanukovich's Regions Party have defected.
The government's November 21 decision to reject a deal on closer trade ties and integration with the EU has laid bare once more a split in world view between Ukraine's Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West.
Protesters see the rejection of the 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 their former Soviet masters in Moscow.
Some 350,000 people took to the streets and squares of Kiev on Sunday in the biggest show of popular anger since the Orange Revolution, when huge demonstrations forced the annulment of a fraudulent presidential election won by Yanukovich.
Striking a conciliatory tone, Azarov apologised for the use of police force against protesters over the weekend and pleaded with opposition leaders not to repeat the revolution.
"We reach out our hand to you; push away the intriguers, the intriguers seeking power and who are trying to repeat the scenario of 2004," Azarov told parliament.
He spoke in Russian, straining to be heard over opposition chants demanding he address them in Ukrainian.
"In the name of the government," Azarov said, "I want to apologise for the actions of law enforcement agencies on (Independence) square."
Confrontation on the streets adds to a risk of financial turmoil. Ukraine faces gas bills and debt repayments next year of more than US$17 billion. The cost of insuring its debt against default hit its highest since January 2010.
As evening fell, around 1000 protesters marched on Yanukovich's presidential administration, singing the national anthem.
"The Orange Revolution laid the foundation for this," said self-employed businessman Yegor Kitov, 45. "But this movement is stronger because, while then it was political parties that were organising the people, now we are organising ourselves."
Unlike 2004, the opposition movement lacks a unified leadership. Pro-EU liberals share the stage with far-right nationalists, so far without a galvanising leader in the mould of jailed former prime minister and orange revolutionary Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko lost a presidential election to Yanukovich in 2010 and was later jailed over a gas deal with Russia. Kiev has rejected a request for her to travel to Germany for medical treatment. She announced a hunger strike in prison last week. Her family say they have been kept from visiting her.
In her absence, the protests have thrown a spotlight on World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Vitaly Klitschko, who leads the opposition Udar (Punch) party.
"I ask Yanukovich - resign!" Klitschko told parliament.
"Don't do anything stupid - don't drive yourself and the country into a dead end."
In a throwback to 2004, tented camps and supplies of food and warm clothing suggested protesters were hunkering down for a long campaign to bring down Yanukovich. They blocked the entrances to the main government building for a second day.
Azarov said his cabinet would meet in the building on Wednesday, potentially setting up a showdown.
Ukraine's currency, bonds and share prices have come under severe pressure. The central bank has been forced to assure people their savings are safe, while the finance minister said Ukraine was repaying its debts and would continue to do so.
"Ukraine is a reliable borrower and is flawlessly fulfilling, and will fulfil, all of its obligations on time," Yuri Kolobov said in a recorded message broadcast by state television today.
Standard and Poor's, which already cut Ukraine's credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further deterioration in the political situation could bring another downgrade.
Russia wants to draw Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union and prevent it moving closer to the EU.
Brussels says the trade deal that Yanukovich abandoned would have brought unprecedented investment, taking advantage of Ukraine's competitively-priced workforce. But Ukraine also has huge Soviet-era industrial enterprises which rely on cheap gas from Russia, making it vulnerable to Kremlin pressure.
China is a possible third source of funds. It has already provided the former Soviet republic with loans worth US$10 billion, perhaps explaining why Yanukovich risked the journey there. He is scheduled to stay until December 6 and sign economic and trade agreements.
"Yanukovich is trying to show that the European Union and Russia are not the only possible partners for Ukraine," said Volodymyr Fesenko of Ukraine's Penta think-tank.