KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Tens of thousands of activists rallied in the center of the Ukrainian capital on Sunday, while the organizers of the weeks-long anti-government protests looked for a future strategy amid dwindling numbers and a continuing government crackdown on the protesters.
The demonstrations, known as Euromaidan, were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision in November to freeze ties with the West and tilt toward Moscow. The pact was later sealed by a $15 billion bailout loan from the Kremlin.
But the protests shifted away from geopolitics in December, after the government violently dispersed several rallies, setting riot police with truncheons on peaceful protesters, and Euromaidan has turned into a movement calling for democracy and human rights. The protesters are demanding Yanukvoych’s ouster and early parliamentary and presidential elections as well as punishment of those security officials who were responsible for the crackdown.
The protests drew hundreds of thousands in the early weeks, but have dwindled to tens of thousands recently, and Yanukovych has succeeded, at least for now, in holding onto power without making any major concessions to the opposition.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told a crowd of more than 20,000 people Sunday that a quick victory should not be expected, and he urged Ukrainians across the country to press ahead with street and other protests. Euromaidan activists are now working in the east and south of Ukraine, which favor closer relations with Russia, to promote support for their movement.
“We will fight to defend our country,” said Klitschko, who is the world heavyweight boxing champion. “We will take part in a peaceful protest so that the authorities will hear us.”
Klitschko called for a nationwide strike to force Yanukovych and the parliament into early elections.
But the government has steadily ignored similar demands, even when the crowds on Kiev’s main square were much bigger. Now that Yanukvoych’s position has been strengthened by economic aid from Russia, the future of the protests remains unclear.
Meanwhile, top opposition and civic activists continue to be attacked and harassed. Former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, a top opposition activist, remained in the hospital on Sunday after being injured during clashes between police and protesters outside a Kiev court the day before, in the latest in a string of attacks on opposition figures.
With the center of Kiev still blocked by a large tent camp and gigantic barricades, and the protest mood still strong, experts predict a prolonged battle.
“This situation is not going to disappear on its own just like that,” said Valeriy Chalyi, head of the Razumkov Center think tank in Kiev. “The expectation that time will wear people out has not proven true.