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Mass protests threaten Ukraine government

AP

Thousands of Ukrainian protesters on Monday blocked entrances to the government building and called for the ouster of the prime minister and his Cabinet, as anger at President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to ditch a deal for closer ties with the European Union gripped other parts of the country and threatened his rule.

The besieging of the building follows a huge rally in the capital by hundreds of thousands Ukrainians on Sunday. The rally was mostly peaceful, until a group of protesters tried to storm Yanukovych’s office. After several hours of scuffles, police chased protesters away with tear gas and truncheons.

It was violent police action against protesters early Saturday that galvanized the latest round of protests, whose aim is to bring down the president and his government.

At least three lawmakers of the governing Party of Regions have quit in protest, and the opposition wants to oust the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov during a confidence vote in parliament Tuesday. But the opposition, which now controls some 170 seats, will need 226 votes in the 450-seat parliament to oust the government.

Azarov’s spokesman, Vitaly Lukyanenko, on Monday said the government was not planning to impose a state of emergency. He would not say whether the prime minister and his ministers were able to enter the Cabinet building, according to the Interfax news agency. Lukyanenko did not pick up the phone when called.

In parts of western Ukraine, where most speak Ukrainian and lean toward the EU, some local officials seem to be in open revolt.

The mayor of Lviv called on the people there to protest and warned that police would take off their uniforms and defend the city if the central government sends reinforcements. Scores of protesters from Lviv and elsewhere in western Ukraine headed to Kiev by train and cars to take part in the rallies.

“Yanukovych is — both as president and as a politician — done,” said Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

In Kiev, thousands returned to Independence Square, where several hundred core protesters spent Sunday night in a tent camp. Hundreds of others were holding ground inside the Kiev City Hall and a labor union building, where they had barricaded themselves Sunday.

“Our goal is to oust the authorities through strikes,” said Serhiy Korchinsky, 35, an engineer from Lviv who spent the night in the protest camp. “The government will be paralyzed until Yanukovych and Azarov resign.”

Protests have been held daily in Kiev since Yanukovych backed away from an agreement that would have established free trade and deepened political cooperation between Ukraine and the EU. He justified the decision by saying that Ukraine could not afford to break trade ties with Russia.

On Sunday, the Ukrainian capital was gripped by a protest of about 300,000 demonstrators angered by their government’s decision to freeze integration with the West.

The mass rally in central Kiev defied a government ban on protests on Independence Square, in the biggest show of anger against Yanukovych yet.

Speaking before the vast crowds on Independence Square from the roof of a bus Sunday, opposition leaders demanded that Yanukovych and his government resign.

“Our plan is clear: It’s not a demonstration, it’s not a reaction. It’s a revolution,” said Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister who is now an opposition leader.

Chants of “revolution” resounded across a sea of yellow and blue Ukrainian and EU flags on the square, where the government had prohibited rallies starting Sunday. The demonstration was by far the largest since the protests began more than a week ago and it carried echoes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, when tens of thousands came to the square nightly for weeks and set up a tent camp along the main street leading to it.

The EU agreement was to have been signed Friday and since then the protests have gained strength.

“We are furious,” said 62-year-old retired businessman Mykola Sapronov, who was among the protesters Sunday. “The leaders must resign. We want Europe and freedom.”

The EU agreement had been eagerly anticipated by Ukrainians who want their country of 45 million people to break out of Moscow’s orbit. Opinion surveys in recent months showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU and a third or less favor closer ties with Russia.

Moscow tried to block the deal with the EU by banning some Ukrainian imports and threatening more trade sanctions.

For Yanukovych, memories of the Orange Revolution are still raw. Those protests forced the annulment of a fraud-tainted presidential election in which he was shown to have won the most votes. A rerun of the election was ordered, and he lost to Western-leaning reformist Viktor Yushchenko.

Yanukovych was elected president five years later, narrowly defeating then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the leading figure of the Orange Revolution.

Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2011 for abuse of office, a case that the West has widely criticized as political revenge.