KIEV, Ukraine — The administration of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych took the first real step toward meeting protesters’ demands Saturday when it opened investigations into four officials over a police assault that injured several dozen people Nov. 30. Two, including the head of the city administration, were suspended.
The opposition welcomed the move but said it wasn’t enough. Its leaders are demanding the prosecution of the interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, and the firing of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
“Those are necessary initial concessions but insufficient steps for restoring justice,” the opposition UDAR party said in a statement about Saturday’s action.
Thousands basked in rare sunshine Saturday afternoon, with the temperature around 32 degrees after a bitter freeze earlier in the week. Hardly any wind stirred, allowing the capital’s Independence Square, which sits in a valley, to fill with the smoke of dozens of wood fires.
A long block away, a pro-government rally drew a crowd estimated by some officials to be at 20,000 people. A solid line of police separated it from the milling thousands in Independence Square, and despite a tense mood, there had been no incidents by sundown. The theme of the rally, organized by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was: “Europe, Yes. Chaos, No.”
Yanukovych’s public position has been that he favors ties with Europe, even though he triggered the protests when he pulled back from signing a formal agreement with the European Union on Nov. 21. But he does not favor what he has suggested is a disorderly and unsanitary rabble that has come out against him.
Azarov, speaking at the pro-government gathering, complained about the news coverage of the long-running protest, especially on television, which has been thorough and uncritical. The television channels here are controlled by business oligarchs who have been leery of Yanukovych and are thought to believe that they would prosper more from ties to Europe than to Russia, which is the only alternative.
Azarov declared, once again, that when Yanukovych flies to Moscow on Tuesday he will not be binding Ukraine to Russia’s new Eurasian Customs Union, but only signing lesser trade deals.
In Moscow, Yuri Ushakov, President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy adviser, said the same thing Saturday, according to the Interfax news agency. But protest leaders have voiced ample skepticism and say they fear that Yanukovych will sell out to Russia.
The week’s rallies have produced some startling echoes of past conflicts. At a pro-government demonstration early in the week near the parliament building, a speaker declared that the last time Europe tried to unite with Ukraine was in 1941 — a reference to the German invasion and subsequent occupation of Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union during World War II.
A day later, the rector of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy sent a jolt through the crowd in Independence Square by ending a fiery speech — delivered first in Ukrainian and then in Russian — by shouting out in Spanish, “Venceremos! No pasaran!”
That was a slogan of the loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. It means, “We shall overcome. They shall not pass.”