KIEV – Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through central Kiev on Sunday to demand that the Ukrainian government reverse course and sign a landmark agreement with the European Union in defiance of Russia.
The protest was the biggest Ukraine has seen since the peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned a fraudulent presidential election result and brought a Western-leaning government to power.
The demonstration was led by Ukraine’s top opposition figures, who called for the protests to continue until President Viktor Yanukovych agreed to sign the free trade and political association deal with the EU at a summit on Friday.
Carrying giant Ukrainian and EU flags, the demonstrators chanted “Ukraine is Europe” and sang the national anthem as they marched toward European Square. An estimated 50,000 people turned out for the rally.
“We want to be together with Europe,” Volodymyr Mnikh, a 62-year-old retired chemist, said with tears in his eyes. “We want our children to have a future and not to be pressured by Russia.”
Ukraine’s leaders announced suddenly last week that they were pulling out of the EU agreement, saying the country could not afford to break trade ties with Russia. The Russian government has worked aggressively to derail the EU deal and bring Ukraine into the Moscow-dominated Customs Union.
“The EU means Ukraine’s development,” said demonstrator Andriy Mazeta, a 19-year-old management student. “The Customs Union means Ukraine’s destruction. We need to push Russia as far away as possible.”
One key EU demand for signing the deal is the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose imprisonment the West sees as politically driven. Yanukovych only narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election and sees her as a political threat. He comes up for re-election in 2015.
At Sunday’s rally, Tymoshenko’s daughter read a letter from her jailed mother demanding that Yanukovych sign the EU deal. “It’s our road map to a normal life,” Eugenia Tymoshenko said, shaking from cold and emotion as she read the letter. “Don’t let him humiliate us all in this way.”
Yuri Lutsenko, a Tymoshenko ally who recently was released from jail, struck a more militant tone, asking the protesters whether they were ready to fight for their country’s future.
“They declared war on us,” Lutsenko told the crowd. “Are we ready to take on this challenge?”
The European Union insists that Yanukovych is still welcome to attend the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, during which the two sides had intended to sign the agreement.