About 100,000 people rallied in Ukraine’s capital to demand the ouster of the president and his Cabinet as mass anti-government protests entered their second month.
Sunday’s rally was the latest in a series of rallies sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision last month to choose ties with Russia over integration with the 28-nation European Union.
“We will create such a hell for the authorities that the ground will burn under their feet,” said Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the opposition nationalist party Svoboda.
Protesters have occupied Kiev’s Independence Square for a month, unhappy with the president’s pivot to Moscow, and have planned another rally on Sunday calling for his resignation.
But their persistence and presence appears to have had little effect on the president, who last Tuesday met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and persuaded him to buy $15bn of Ukrainian bonds and slash Russian gas prices by one-third.
Yanukovich has resisted calls for greater EU integration and rejected demands to leave office. He has also said he will not call a snap election.
But the ongoing political crisis could undermine his long-term staying power.
Last week Yanukovich said he would only seek re-election in a March 2015 presidential vote if he had enough pre-campaign support.
Putin’s ‘brotherly’ act
Putin played down fears that the bailout was a way to keep Europe at a distance, describing the financial package as a “brotherly” act to stave off an economic crisis.
“Now we see that Ukraine is in difficult straits,” Putin told his annual news conference after his meeting with Yanukovich.
“If we really say that they are a brotherly nation and people then we must act like close relatives and help this nation.
“In no way this is related with the Maidan [protests in central Kiev] or the European talks with Ukraine.”
Though crowds have thinned in Independence Square, hundreds remain camped out in the capital, sleeping in tents and keeping warm beside fires.
The protests have drawn crowds of up to 300,000 in spite of police brutality, freezing temperatures and counter-rallies from pro-Yanukovich supporters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of several international leaders who has asked for peaceful protests in Kiev.
While Sunday’s demonstration was smaller than on previous weekends, it was still a strong showing for a protest movement that has entered its second month in the frigid cold.
Kiev’s main square, the Maidan, and an adjacent street were filled with protest tents, field kitchens and giant barricades made of sacks of snow, car tires and wooden planks.
“The Maidan has become a symbol of Ukraine’s change,” said Mykola Razdel, 35. “Simple people want change and it is in our power to change everything.”