The Russian-aligned government in Ukraine was clinging to power amid an ongoing massive protest in Kiev and what the prime minister branded a “coup attempt” by a pro-European opposition led in part by boxing’s world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko.
President Viktor Yanukovich and his top ally, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, were scrambling to avoid a replay of the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” in which Yanukovich was ousted as prime minister and presidential front-runner. But the protesters, angered at the regime’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union, vowed to remain in Kiev’s Independence Square until Yanukovich steps down.
“We need to change the system. There must be a complete reloading of the leadership.”
- Opposition leader and world boxing champiion Vitali Klitschko
"I ask Yanukovich - resign!" Klitschko, whose imposing physical presence and hero status has made him a leader of the opposition, said in parliament.
Yanukovich instead agreed to reconsider a deal with Brussels – then departed for China. He left it to Azarov to apologize for a violent crackdown in the square over the weekend, which only caused a small demonstration to balloon. But the prime minister also accused demonstrators of trying to replay the uprising eight years ago, saying he’d seen “all the signs of a coup.”
"We reach out our hand to you. Push away the plotters, the plotters seeking power and who are trying to repeat the scenario of 2004," Azarov said.
The country’s 45-million population has long been divided between supporters aligned with Russia and those who seek to identify with the west. In the eastern part of the country, much of the population speaks Russian and sees Moscow as a patron. But many in the the western part of Ukraine see Russia as an imperialist force, and often invoke the slogan "Ukraine is Russia."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has blasted the idea of Ukraine aligning with the European Union, and denounced the ongoing demonstration as “pogroms.” He wants Ukraine to enhance trade agreements with Russia and spurn the west.
Opponents in the square are seeking to accomplish what they failed to pull off in Parliament, where a bid to force a vote of no-confidence in the government failed. But most lawmakers refused to vote, and some members of Yanukovich's Regions Party even defected, giving heart to the opposition.
The demonstrations in Kiev were not reported to be spreading to other cities, though opposition to the regime has apparently increased in recent days. Opinion surveys conducted before the protests showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favoring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favor of integration with the EU.
Ukraine is under economic pressure to borrow money, whether from the west or the east. Standard and Poor's, which already cut Ukraine's credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further political deterioration could bring another downgrade.
Brussels says a trade deal with Europe would bring the Ukraine valuable investment, but Putin is using the supply of cheap Russian gas - or the threat of cutting it off - as a hammer to bring Ukraine to heel.
Yanukovich's trip to China could reveal a third possible source of financing. Beijing has already provided Ukraine with $10 billion in loans, and Yanukovich is scheduled to stay until Dec. 6 and sign economic and trade agreements. It could be the only way to steer between the two sides battling back home, while addressing the nation's fiscal woes.
But opposition demonstrators say it is too late for the regime.
“We need to change the system. There must be a complete reloading of the leadership,” Klitschko told reporters.