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Ukraine protests: Not quite a million, but no end in sight

Opposition leaders had vowed to assemble one million protesters in Kiev on Sunday to keep up pressure on President Yanukovych amid reports of a trade pact with Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered Sunday on the streets of Kiev in a show of strength that, while impressive, fell short of opposition calls for a one million-strong rally that would have topped last weekend’s turnout. The large crowds, and signs of an increasingly slick protest camp in the heart of Ukraine’s capital, point to a protracted standoff over the country’s political future.

For the past three weeks, demonstrators have demanded the resignation of Ukraine’s president,Viktor Yanukovych over his refusal to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Adding fuel to the fire, President Yanukovych met Friday in Russia with President Vladimir Putin, reportedly to discuss a customs union between Ukraine and Russia, a move that is bitterly opposed by protesters in Kiev.

Opposition leaders had the last few days trying to galvanize their supporters for a big turnout. “Tomorrow there should be a million of us and we will make Yanukovych fulfill our demands. Tomorrow depends on each of us,” boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko told people gathered in Independence Square on Saturday evening.

“Those who can’t get to Kiev, take to the streets in your cities and show your intention to live in a modern European country, the name of which is Ukraine.”

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Early estimates placed the number of demonstrators in Kiev at 100,000-200,000, with the square so packed with people that it was hard to move. Last Sunday the crowds swelled to 350,000 after police violently clashed with protestors during an overnight attempt to clear the square. Four hundred people were injured in those clashes.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former prime minister, sent a statement to her supporters urging them to join the rally. “There must be more of us than last Sunday,” she wrote.

A fresh round of anger flared on Friday when protestors seized on reports that Yanukovych may have signed a trade deal with Russia. Both the Russian and Ukrainian leaderships have denied that such an agreement was signed or even discussed.   

“We don’t know whether he signed anything or not, but irrespective we understand that he is inclined to sign something with Russia,” says Oleh Pluhararenko, a  lawyer from Kiev, who held a banner reading: Hey Putin, leave us alone. “Signing something with Russia means we are selling our country to them,” he says.

Over the last few days, the protesters’ infrastructure has improved dramatically. New reinforced tents have been erected throughout the square, barricades have been reinforced, and a food kitchen in a trade-union building prepares and distributes donated hot meals to the crowds gathered in subzero temperatures.  

On Saturday afternoon, thousands of Ukrainian and EU flags fluttered over the dense crowds, as snow fell all around. A string of opposition leaders took to the stage, urging those in the square, and those watching on television, to keep up the pressure on Yanukovych to step down.

Policemen stood guarding a nearby statue of Lenin, which protesters had tried to topple last week. Elsewhere anti-government protestors and pro-government supporters squared off outside another public building, but there were no reports of clashes.

Despite the lower-than-advertised turnout Sunday, protestors seemed undeterred.“Even if there aren’t a million of us there are enough to send a strong message to our politicians,” says Hanna Dzhus, a student from the central city of Vinnytsia. “If they won’t listen to us we must make them. We won’t give up.”