KIEV, Ukraine – The Ukrainian government's abrupt decision to freeze ties with the West and violently disperse a peaceful rally has fueled public anger and drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets of the Ukrainian capital. Here is a look at the main characters in Ukraine's political drama:
PRESIDENT VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH
Born in the Russian-speaking industrial east, the 63-year-old started his career as an electrician before going on to become the governor of his home region in 1997 and then Ukraine's prime minister in 2002.
He suffered a humiliation in 2004 when his victory in the fraud-tainted presidential election was declared void under pressure from massive unprecedented protests dubbed the Orange Revolution, allowing his pro-Western rival to win power. But Yanukovych took advantage of the troubled economy and infighting in the Orange camp to win the 2010 presidential vote.
His government has been criticized for inconsistent economic policies, backtracking on democratic reforms and enriching a close group relatives and friends, who have earned the nickname the Family.
Evidence that he lives in a lavish country mansion complete with an ostrich enclosure is seen as an emblem of the secrecy and arrogance of his presidency. Opponents point at his teenage convictions on charges of robbery and assault and have ridiculed his crude ways and bad grammar.
Yanukovych has tried to maneuver between Russia and the West, but made his choice last week when he refused to sign the political association and free trade pact with the EU and sought stronger ties with Moscow. He has relied on support in the industrial east and southeast, where many favor close ties with Russia, while trying to placate others with promises to sign the EU deal in the future. But the massive protests have eroded his grip on power and put him on the defensive.
EX-PRIME MINISTER YULIA TYMOSHENKO
The charismatic blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko was named the nation's prime minister, but quickly got into a vicious tug-of-war with President Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko fired her after seven months on the job in 2005, but then again named her the prime minister in 2007.
In 2010, the 53-year-old narrowly lost the presidential race to Yanukovych. The next year, she was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges the West has denounced as a political vendetta.
The EU has made the signing of the cooperation deal with Ukraine conditional on Tymoshenko's release, but Yanukovych dismissed the demand, clearly fearing that his arch-rival could challenge him in the 2015 presidential election.
Even in prison, Tymoshenko has remained a top opposition figure. In a passionate statement on Saturday, she urged Ukrainians to join protests, calling on them to wake up and oust Yanukovych from power.
PRIME MINISTER MYKOLA AZAROV
A technocrat seen as loyal to Yanukovych, the 65-year old Azarov has been vocal in his opposition to the EU deal, arguing that the bloc has given Ukraine little practical help. He has insisted that Ukraine should try to negotiate a better deal while strengthening its ties with Russia, which has served as the main export market for Ukrainian goods.
But Azarov has also been a moderate voice in the government, calling for a peaceful solution of the current crisis and saying that protesters have the right to express their opinion freely.
The opposition is hoping to oust Azarov during a confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday.
INTERIOR MINISTER VITALI ZAKHARCHENKO
A staunch ally of Yanukovych, the 50-year old Zakharchenko is often described as a member of the Family.
Zakharchenko has managed to hold on to his post despite numerous scandals in the police, including the rape of a young woman over the summer in a provincial city by two policemen and an attempted cover-up of the crime by their boss.
Zakharchenko reportedly was behind an attempt to disperse a demonstration on the main square on Saturday that left some protesters bleeding after they were beaten with truncheons. The heavy-handed tactics provoked strong public anger and have galvanized the protests.
The 42-year old ruling world heavyweight boxing champion burst into the Ukrainian political scene last fall when the party he leads, called Udar, or Punch, performed surprisingly well in parliamentary elections.
According to some polls, Klitschko has become the most popular politician in Ukraine, thanks to his pro-Western and anti-corruption platform.
Klitschko positions himself as a new force in Ukrainian politics. In contrast with many opposition and pro-government politicians seen as corrupt, Klitshcko has the reputation of a man who made his millions in an honest and transparent way — in the boxing ring.
The 39-year ex-banker co-heads the Batkivshchyna (the Fatherland) party with Tymoshenko. Yatsenyuk earned millions in banking and then kicked off an impressive political career, serving as the head of the National Bank, economics and foreign minister and Parliament speaker.
He unsuccessfully ran for president in 2010 on a pro-Western platform. As the government brought charges against Tymoshenko, Yatsenyuk entered her party and has led efforts to win her release and integrate Ukraine with the European Union.
The 45-year old former urologist and leader of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, performed well in parliamentary elections last fall. Svoboda's support base is largely in the Ukrainian-speaking western Ukraine, though they also received some protest votes from the center and east of the country.
While Svoboda campaigns firmly for EU membership and Western values, their leaders, including Tyahnybok, have made anti-Semitic and racist remarks to protests by Jewish and other rights groups. The group also campaigns for strict conservative values and has called for banning abortions and spoken out against gay rights.
The 49-year old leads the ultra-nationalist Brotherhood, a radical group that has campaigned for the supremacy of the Ukrainian nation.
Sporting the trademark moustache of the renowned late Ukrainian poet and writer Taras Shevchenko, Korchinsky has fought Russian forces in Chechnya on the side of Chechen rebels in 1994.
Ukrainian police said Brotherhood activists armed with metal rods and stones spearheaded an attempt to storm the presidential administration headquarters on Sunday, which provoked a violent response from police and left dozens injured.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.