On Wednesday, thousands of university students from Kiev and other cities returned to the Ukrainian capital’s main square in larger numbers one day after calling a strike.
Their arrival re-energised a seventh day of protests by activists, politicians and average Ukrainians against last week’s stunning government decision to back out of signing historic EU integration agreements at a Vilnius summit being held this Thursday and Friday.
Ruslana, the charismatic winner of the 2004 Eurovision song competition with Wild Dances, rallied crowds from Tuesday evening overnight into Wednesday amid bone-chillingly cold weather. She kept them dancing to stay warm, singing and chanting: “We exist, we are Europe. Ukraine is Europe. Youth of the nation… for Euro integration.”
As the protests mounted for a seventh day with students from other cities arriving, donations from ordinary citizens of food, warm drinks and blankets piled up at the central protest site on Kiev’s main square, site of the 2004 Orange Revolution and now dubbed “Euro-Maidan.”
On Wednesday, protestors signed a 250-metre long cloth urging Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, to sign the agreements as originally scheduled at the November 28-29 EU Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Vilnius. Afterwards, they marched two blocks up from Kiev’s main square to the presidential office to personally hand it over.
There were no immediate signs, however, that Yanukovich, who plans to attend the summit for negotiations, would cave in.
In a rare television interview on Tuesday evening, he tried to win over the protestors. He insisted EU integration remained a top foreign policy goal. Yanukovich stressed that his government was merely putting off signing the agreements, possibly until as early as spring, to win better concessions. He called for the EU and IMF to soften conditions for multi-billion-dollar financial support for his cash-strapped government and ailing economy which faces additional stress under Russian trade restrictions.
Many protestors remained sceptical, suspecting Yanukovich was instead buying time and perhaps plotting Ukraine’s shift back towards Russia’s “backyard”.
Others in internet blogs discussed the possibility of temporarily winding down protests in coming days to return next spring to hold Yanukovich to his promise.
Not all agreed.
“This is trickery aimed at defusing the protest, following up with more political repressions,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, a protest organiser who claims his car was burned by authorities on Tuesday evening.
“This is a revolutionary wave which should end only in signing of the EU agreements and a change in Ukrainian leadership. We should not allow for it to be extinguished.”
For now, with no sign that Yanukovich would cave into their immediate demands, many demonstrators prepared for the long haul.
As of late Wednesday, crowd sizes were estimated to be above 5,000, far below the crowds of up to a million people amassed during the Orange Revolution. Protester resolve appeared nevertheless to be growing despite the weather, with the anticipation of bigger crowds, larger than the 100,000 mustered last Sunday, materialising in coming days as supporters from other cities flock to Kiev.
Protest organisers have been noting names and phone numbers of protesters who arrived from other cities, putting them in touch with locals who offered a warm overnight bed and shower at their apartments.
Activity on Facebook pages used by the protest organisers surged.
Some nearby cafes, such as Baraban Bar, offered protest participants free coffee, tea and a chance to warm-up inside on its cozy couches, before going back outside to face and potentially change the cold uncertainty of their country’s future along with thousands of warm friends and co-patriots.
Ukraine’s rulers prioritise perpetuation of power, FT
Yanukovich is playing with the rules, not by them, FT
Pro-EU demo in Ukraine, FT Photo Diary
Putin leans on Kiev as protests persist, FT
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