Protesters gather in Independence Square in downtown Kiev on Friday night… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)
KIEV, Ukraine -- Protesters took to the streets in Ukraine’s capital Friday after President Viktor Yanukovich abandoned plans to sign a trade and association agreement with the European Union in favor of staying within Russia’s orbit.
As Yanukovich headed home from an EU summit in Lithuania, thousands of mostly young demonstrators converged on Independence Square in downtown Kiev to demand that the president be impeached.
Many carried the Ukrainian and European Union flags and brandished posters telling Yanukovich to “Sign or go” and “Go to Siberia. We wanna live in Europe!”
“Today they stole our hope,” opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion, told the swelling crowd. “We must demand the current leadership go. Only new leaders can sign the association” pact.
Less than a mile away, thousands of Yanukovich’s supporters, many of them municipal and industrial workers who said they had been bused in from the country’s central and eastern regions, gathered in Europe Square carrying the blue flag of the ruling Party of Regions.
“I am glad the agreement was not signed because otherwise it would make many people lose their jobs in our area where unemployment is already very high,” said Larisa Andriets, a 52-year-old social worker from the central Ukraine city of Zhitomir. “We must stay with Russia like back in the old days when everybody was happy.”
Yanukovich surprised and angered many Ukrainians when he reversed course last week on integration with Western Europe and announced that the country wouldn't be signing the association deal at this week's summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.
Yanukovich’s government argues that Ukraine can’t afford to sacrifice trade with Russia, which has made veiled threats to cut natural gas exports that supply 60% of the country’s needs. But Yanukovich suggested Friday that a deal could still be reached with the EU if measures were worked out to help Ukraine’s economy adjust to “new conditions,” according to his official website.
By nightfall, as the pro-government demonstration dissolved without a trace, the opposition rally was growing in numbers.
“I can't stand seeing Yanukovich tearing himself between Europe and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, and I hate to see Putin winning,” said Natalia Pylypiv, a 20-year-old geology student from the western Ukraine city of Ivano-Frankovsk. “We will stay here to the end to make the authorities change their decision.”
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Special correspondent Victoria Butentko contributed to this report.