KIEV, Ukraine – Protesters toppled a monument to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin on Sunday during the biggest march and rally in central Kiev since President Viktor Yanukovich galvanized his opposition by turning down a trade deal with the European Union.
The Ukrainian protesters blocked and barricaded government offices and gave Yanukovich 48 hours to disband his government before they would march on his country residence near Kiev. A government spokesman said Yanukovich’s administration was “ready for negotiations.”
In rejecting the trade deal with the EU, Yanukovich was effectively asserting that Russia remained Ukraine’s key trade partner. The country is politically and geographically divided, to some extent, between those who favor ties to Russia and those who would like to see Ukraine more aligned with Western Europe.
The protests Sunday were the largest since the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Although crowd estimates varied widely – from an official police estimate of 50,000 to rally organizers’ claims of up to 1 million – the turnout seemed clearly larger than for a demonstration the previous Sunday that was officially calculated at 300,000.
Opposition leaders in Independence Square, where the demonstrations have been centered, reiterated their primary demand that Yanukovich dismiss his Cabinet, and that those responsible for the brutal dispersal of a student rally on Nov. 30 be punished.
However, the president’s jailed rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, urged the opposition not to compromise and to focus on removing the “tyrant” Yanukovich from power.
“Do not distract your attention!” Tymoshenko said in a letter from jail read at the rally by her daughter, Yevgeniya. “Negotiations with Yanukovich are only possible on the condition that early presidential and parliamentary elections be held.”
Opposition leaders also warned that the Yanukovich administration might try to introduce a state of emergency.
Yanukovich had no public response Sunday, but a spokesman for Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suggested the possibility of progress.
“Peaceful gatherings can happen and the government is ready for negotiations,” Vitaly Lukyanenko told RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency. “But when peaceful rallies build barricades and destroy monuments, call for terror on certain employees and their family members, these gatherings are not peaceful.”