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Tensions in Ukraine mount amid political deadlock

Protests continue after the government survives a no-confidence vote.

KYIV, Ukraine — Opposition lawmakers failed to hammer through a no-confidence vote in the government on Tuesday, a development observers say will probably exacerbate the political crisis here and further inflame the largest protests since the Orange Revolution in 2004.

The vote marked the first attempt by Ukraine’s three main opposition parties to seek a formal political resolution that would put the former Soviet republic back on track toward Europeanintegration after the government’s refusal last month to sign wide-ranging political and trade agreements with the European Union.

But President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which controls a majority in parliament, was able to stop the measure. That, combined with recent police violence against mostly peaceful protesters, is emboldening anti-government protesters in a political standoff experts say is only intensifying.

“The situation isn’t getting any easier, but worse,” said Valeriy Chaly of the Razumkov Center think-tank in Kyiv.

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After Tuesday’s parliament session, when anti-regime lawmakers mustered only 186 of the 226 votes needed to force a no-confidence vote, opposition leaders renewed their calls for the government’s ouster as well as early parliamentary and presidential elections.

At a rally on Tuesday afternoon, Fatherland Party leader Arseniy Yatseniuk told tens of thousands of protesters to gather outside the presidential administration building, where violent clashes between police and protesters broke out last weekend.

“We will stand there until a decision is made about [Prime Minister Mykola] Azarov’s dismissal and early elections,” he said.

Yanukovych was scheduled to fly to China on a working visit late Tuesday. Nevertheless, opposition leaders urged supporters to erect roadblocks around the building until a decision was made, Ukrainian media reported.

By Tuesday evening, anti-government demonstrators effectively controlled much of downtown Kyiv and forced the partial closure of Kreshchatyk, the city’s main street.

They continued to occupy several key administrative buildings, including city hall — the site of a makeshift “revolutionary headquarters” where volunteers distribute food, warm clothing and medicine to fellow protesters.

Around-the-clock demonstrators have also erected barricades around Independence Square — the nucleus of the Orange Revolution as well as the current protests — while others roam freely around the streets housing most of the central government’s main buildings.

Several thousand gathered outside parliament during Tuesday’s session, some huddled around parked cars listening to a live feed of the proceedings.

On Independence Square, trash-barrel fires and army-green tents erected to provide warmth for protesters are lending a revolutionary feel to this bustling and brightly lit former city.

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Graffiti have appeared on walls and sidewalks, some reading “Away with Yanukovych” and “Revolution.”

Like the opposition leaders, many protesters say they’ve lost hope of forcing the authorities to renege on their pledge not to sign the EU agreements.

Instead, people such as Oleh, a 40-year-old business manager from the western Ivano-Frankivsk region, support early elections and a wholesale change of power.

“There won’t be any more decisions [by the authorities] that will satisfy the people who have gathered here,” he said.

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Leading officials, meanwhile, remain largely defiant in the face of the ongoing protests.

While Azarov apologized on Tuesday for the heavy-handed police violence against protesters, he denounced the blockades activists have erected downtown as a threat to the authorities.

“We are open for dialogue,” the AP reported him as telling parliament. “We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force.”

Experts don’t exclude the possibility of another crackdown.

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They say the authorities’ lack of flexibility — especially on the part of the ruling Party of Regions — is only exacerbating the blooming political crisis.

“This demonstrates that the current regime is not ready to make any compromises,” Chaly said, “and there will be a further escalation of the conflict, as well as a radicalization of the demonstrators.”