KIEV, Ukraine --If Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich had ventured out into the streets Saturday, he would have heard a new slogan shouted by angry crowds, using his nickname in a most unfriendly way: “Hang Yanik on the Christmas tree!”
Defiance mounted among opponents of Yanukovich’s government after riot police wielding truncheons and shields cleared Independence Square of demonstrators who had occupied the site in the heart of Kiev for days. The pre-dawn assault by police brought in from pro-government areas of eastern Ukraine reportedly left about 40 protesters injured and 35 detained.
Authorities offered a pretext for clearing the square: Protesters were obstructing the installation of a Christmas tree.
Opposition leaders called for a major protest Sunday in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, and announced plans for a national strike as the first step toward forcing early elections to unseat the government.
Vitali Klitschko, a super heavyweight boxing champion and opposition lawmaker, called a news conference and urged Ukrainians, “Your future depends on each one of you. If you stay at home, nothing will change! Everyone should come out and raise his or her voice! Do you want to live in a totalitarian country where your children will be beaten up or in a free European country?”
At the heart of the growing opposition to Yanukovich’s government was his decision to not sign an association agreement with the European Union during talks in Lithuania that ended Friday. The accord would have tied his nation closer to the West and, supporters argued, increased trade and economic development in Ukraine. Instead he appeared to link the country’s future with its traditional ally, Russia, which had opposed Ukraine’s bid for an EU treaty.
Analysts said the early-morning sweep of the square only contributed to what increasingly is becoming the worst political crisis of Yanukovich's nearly 4-year-old presidency.
“I find it impossible to believe that Yanukovich could have given this outrageous order to attack the protesting youths last night,” said Kost Bondarenko, director of the Ukrainian Policy Institute, a Kiev-based think tank. “As an immediate damage-control measure, Yanukovich should announce an investigation, find the culprits among the police in the shortest time and have them severely punished.”
Late Saturday, Yanukovich expressed indignation over the police violence early in the day, posting a statement on his website. “I denounce the actions which led to physical confrontation and human suffering,” he said. “Those who provoked … the conflict in [Independence] Square will be punished.”
Shortly afterward, hundreds of motorists jammed the downtown area around Independence Square, still protected by riot police. They stopped their cars, honking and waving national and EU flags out the windows.
Kiev news reports said that Yanukovich's chief of staff, Sergei Lyovochkin, had resigned. A prominent ally of the president, Inna Bogoslovskaya, quit the ruling party parliament faction, accusing Yanukovich and his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on her personal blog of plotting to split Ukraine and demanding the Ukrainian leader’s resignation.
Bondarenko, the analyst, warned that the decisions to not sign the EU agreement and to break up a peaceful rally might feed separatist tendencies in the country. Ukrainians in the western region, which is predominantly agricultural, pro-small business and Catholic, traditionally look toward Western Europe, while the industrial and mostly Orthodox Christian eastern region tends to favor Russia.
On Saturday morning, protesters took their rally to another site, gathering on the grounds of St. Michael's Cathedral a mile from Independence Square. By nightfall, thousands of protesters had gathered at St. Michael Square in front of the cathedral. They were brandishing yellow and blue Ukrainian flags and blue EU banners and chanting “Down with the gang!”
Protesters who had witnessed the clearing of Independence Square said police were swinging their clubs while shouting, “Did you want Europe? Go ahead and get it!”
“It was horrendous as they rushed at us without warning,” recalled Igor Mitrov, 22, a philology student with a bandaged head showing a dark blood stain. “I was busy trying to save one girl from police club blows and kicks and ... a police officer hit me on the back of the head with full force.”
Nelli Didenko, a 23-year-old postgraduate student in Russian literature, was kicked in the leg and fell. She was helped to her feet by another protester who she said saved her but got club blows to his back in turn.
“As I was trying to get out of the square badly limping for the excruciating pain in my leg, a police officer shouted right in my ear: ‘Run!’” she recalled. “I turned to look at him and he was a huge man about my dad's age. I said, ‘I can't. My leg is hurt.’ He laughed and as I turned back, he prodded me in the back several times with his club!”
Mitrov said that he didn't have a clue what to do next, and that as much as he hated Yanukovich, he was also frustrated and disappointed by opposition leaders who had left Independence Square during the night and weren’t present when police arrived.
“They just set us up, calling on us to stand vigil there over the night and leaving us alone out there to face police clubs and boots,” Mitrov said.
Opposition leaders denied the charge, saying they rushed to the square after the news broke of the police action and offered legal assistance to those who were detained.