KIEV – A showdown between Russia on one side and the United States and the European Union on the other drew closer Sunday, as two American senators told a crowd of hundreds of thousands of protesters that Ukraine’s future lies to the west, not east.
“We are here,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, “to support your just cause: the sovereign right to determine (Ukraine’s) own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe.”
Added Sen. Chris Murphy, from Connecticut: “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the U.S. stands with Ukraine.”
“Molodtsi,” the crowd chanted in Ukrainian, indicating its approval. But the president whom the opposition so despises, Viktor Yanukovych, on Tuesday will head for Russia to cement deals involving natural gas purchases and financial credits to prop up his country’s ailing economy.
Yanukovych has vowed that he will not commit Ukraine to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new Eurasian Customs Union, but the Ukrainian opposition does not believe him.
Murphy, McCain and European politicians who addressed the crowd in Kiev on Sunday turned up the pressure on Yanukovych, promising that their governments will consider individual financial sanctions against responsible Ukrainian officials if there is any further outbreak of police violence against the protesters who come and go at the semipermanent encampment on Kiev’s Independence Square.
Yanukovych has tried to mollify the opposition by resuming talks with the EU on a trade agreement. His Nov. 21 decision to back away from the deal triggered the protest movement.
But in Brussels on Sunday, the EU commissioner for expansion, Stefan Fule, announced on Twitter that he is suspending negotiations with Ukraine on a revised trade agreement because Yanukovych’s words and actions on the issue were “moving further and further apart.”
Ukraine’s arguments in favor of better terms than those agreed to earlier this year have “no grounds in reality,” Fule wrote.
Still, Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament, told the crowd in Kiev, “the door for Ukraine to Europe is open.”
Opposition leaders are concerned that if Yanukovych signs an agreement on Ukraine’s eventual membership in Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union, that will remove the possibility of a pact with the EU.
“If the agreement is signed, he can remain in Moscow and not return to Kiev,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the Fatherland Party, said from the stage in Kiev on Sunday.
Demonstrators have turned out for three weeks in the encampment on Independence Square, expanding the scope of their protests to denounce police violence and political corruption. The protesters insist that they will not leave until Yanukovych is booted from office. But it is unclear which side in the fight for Ukraine’s future has more stamina and resolve.
The government is “expecting cold weather to break people’s spirits,” said Yakov Hutsul, 29, who runs an air-conditioning business in Ternopil, in western Ukraine. “But we’ll be here. Cold weather is not the main evil we’re contending with. There is no way back.”
With the temperature hovering around freezing, Sunday’s turnout appeared to be somewhat smaller than a huge rally a week earlier, but news agencies estimated that it still drew about 200,000 people, bedecked in hats, scarves and Ukrainian flags.
A smaller rally of about 15,000 people, also arrayed in Ukrainian flag paraphernalia, showed its support for Yanukovych in a hilltop park near the parliament building. “We’re here so this can all end peacefully,” said Lyudmila Akhmedzhanova, 50, a teacher who, unusually for a Yanukovych supporter, comes from western Ukraine. “And we’re here for the European Union.”
She said that she is not opposed to an eventual alliance with the European Union but that now is not the time. “We’re supporting Yanukovych because we need to wait a little,” Akhmedzhanova said. “With time, we can come to a European level.”
At exactly 4 p.m., the Yanukovych backers dispersed. “These are all bureaucrats,” said Bogdan Vuyko, 57, who lives in Sevastopol and came to observe both camps. Most of the pro-government demonstrators were not from Kiev, he said. “They have to get home and get to work tomorrow.”
Vuyko said some of his friends had been pressed by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which organized the pro-government rally, into attending. “Nobody’s actually listening to the speakers,” he said.
The square where the protest over Yanukovych is rooted, known to all simply as “the Maidan,” has taken a central place in the lives of some Kievans. “When I wake up and turn on the radio and hear that the Maidan is still alive,” said Yelena Gorlocheva, 51, “I know I can get up and make myself a coffee.”
Solid lines of police vehicles and heavily armored officers separated the two rallies Sunday. No serious incidents were reported.
Kateryna Bondar, 22, part of the anti-government demonstration, said Yanukovych’s suspension of four officials Saturday for their involvement in a police raid against protesters was an insufficient step. She said that even if he fires Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, that still will not be enough.
“He has to take first responsibility,” she said. “There’s nothing he can do to save himself. Firing others is a sign of cowardice.”