KIEV – An estimated 50,000 pro-Western Ukrainians massed on Sunday in the heart of Kiev amid swelling anger over the bloody beating of prominent former minister turned opposition leader Yuriy Lutsenko.
The 49-year-old member of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s Cabinet was transferred out of intensive care on Saturday evening after being attacked by truncheon-wielding police during a small protest the night before.
“He received about 10 blows to the head,” the former interior minister’s spokeswoman said. “No one is allowed to see him except for his closest relatives.”
Nearly 20 activists were injured when they tried to prevent the police from moving to jail three young men who were sentenced to six years for allegedly plotting to blow up a statue of Soviet founder Lenin in 2011.
It marked the first use of force against a leader of Ukraine’s latest wave of pro-Western protests and threatened to reignite the worst political crisis of President Viktor Yanukovych’s four-year rule.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million that once served as the breadbasket of Europe has been gripped by ceaseless demonstrations ever since Yanukovych in November ditched an historic EU trade deal in favor of tighter ties with old master Russia.
The biggest rallies on Kiev’s iconic Independence Square drew hundreds of thousands — an echo of the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on a westward path. The city’s main street remains occupied by a tent encampment protected by makeshift barricades to this day.
Protest numbers had begun to recede when Yanukovych brushed aside the havoc in mid-December and struck a $15 billion (€11 billion) bailout package with Russia that also slashed the price Ukraine has to pay for natural gas imports on which its teetering economy depends.
The deal removed the immediate threat of a painful Ukrainian currency devaluation and debt default but also dimmed the prospects of a so-called Association Agreement being struck with the European Union in the coming months.
But anger at what many saw as the president’s personal orders to crack down on his top political foes saw the number of people gathered at towering Independence Monument in the city’s central square swell from 10,000 at the last weekly rally on Jan. 5 to what AFP reporters estimated was a crowd of nearly 50,000 on Sunday afternoon.
“When the police are not afraid to beat up their old boss, this shows that the authorities are trying to frighten those who dare rise against him,” said pensioner Anatoliy Radyuk as a freezing winter rain pelted the determined throng.
Top opposition leaders, such as former boxing champ Vitali Klitschko — another Tymoshenko supporter — said the latest outburst of police violence showed the importance of a continued effort to topple Yanukovych’s team.
“This once again shows that the protests on squares across the country must continue,” said a Klitschko statement that was also signed by opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyagnybok.
“We will do everything to remove the authorities and change a system that allows the police to beat its people on crazy orders,” the statement said.
The protest movement had lost much of its steam in previous weeks because of a winter holiday season that stretches in post-Soviet countries from New Year’s Eve to Orthodox Christmas — celebrated according to the Julian Calendar on Jan. 7.
Many also celebrate the so-called “Old New Year” on Jan. 14 and families often leave big cities or take vacations for the entire two-week stretch.
Klitschko said he expected at least 100,000 people to come out for the next mass protest in Kiev next Sunday.
The police did not release an immediate estimate of the size of Sunday’s crowd.