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Ukrainian protests flare up over pivot away from Europe (+video)

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(Read caption) Facing huge anti-government demonstrations after spurning a deal with the European Union, Ukraine's embattled president sought Monday to quell public anger by moving to renew talks with Brussels. The opposition, meanwhile, scrambled to secure enough votes in parliament to oust the Cabinet and try to force an early presidential election, in the biggest unrest in the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution. President Viktor Yanukovych struggled to reaffirm his grip on power as thousands of demonstrators besieged government buildings in Kiev, his party suffered defections and three cities in the west of the country openly defied the central government.
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Three hundred and fifty thousand Ukrainians packed Kiev's main square Sunday to protest the government's abandonment of a trade agreement with the European Union that, in many Ukrainians' eyes, was packed with promise of a different future.

The Nov. 21 decision, which pivots Ukraine's trade policy back toward Russia, came after months of pressure from Russia and prompted the biggest protests since the Orange Revolution of 2004-05. The EU agreement would have set Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, on a path toward greater European integration.

"They stole the dream," opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxer, called out in Independence Square Sunday, according to Reuters. 

The demonstrations have a central demand: the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. But there is no clear leader among the opposition yet, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

“Society has to take the initiative,” Oleh Rybachuk, a former government minister, told The Wall Street Journal. “People went onto the street because they wanted to live in Europe. They didn’t chant a single name of a politician, unlike in 2004. If politicians fail to lead, it will be done by well-organized students.”

Demonstrations have been ongoing since the government decision, and took a violent turn this weekend as police tried to rein them in with tear gas and stun grenades, Reuters reports:

TV footage showed Berkut (special forces) police striking people on the legs and body with batons or kicking them as they lay on the ground.

Kiev's medical authorities said 112 people were given first aid treatment for injuries on Saturday, 42 of whom were kept in hospital. Police said 100 officers had been injured in the violence during the day.

An online TV station, called Public TV, on Sunday listed 29 journalists, mainly cameramen and photographers, who had suffered at the hands of police while covering the weekend events in Kiev.

At least 12 of these had been beaten by riot police. Those hurt included a Reuters cameraman who was beaten on the arms and whose camera was destroyed.

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Bloomberg Businessweek puts the number seeking medical care at 165, with 109 admitted to the hospital. The Wall Street Journal reports that protests had been petering out until the police crackdown, which infuriated demonstrators and swelled their support.

Opposition leaders called for a national strike today. The number of people who join in will be an indicator of how much support they have for their calls for the government's resignation.

Protesters have entered and blocked some government buildings and put up barricades on Independence Square, BBC reports. Overnight, they pitched tents there as well. This morning, the parliamentary speaker said that there would be talks between the government and opposition today

The dispute has a more prosaic dimension as well. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Russia and the EU each buy about a quarter of Ukraine's exports, but that Russia supplies 60 percent of its gas. They have accused each other of pressuring the Ukrainian government. 

Putin’s government may have offered Ukraine $15 billion in loans, debt restructuring and asset purchases to persuade it not to proceed with the EU deal, the Ukrainian magazine Zerkalo Nedeli said. Azarov also said yesterday on Inter television he wanted to agree a new price of gas in two weeks.

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Russia will offer cheaper natural gas to Ukraine if the government in Kiev opts to join the Moscow-led economic bloc, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said in an interview. 

“A gas agreement could help relieve Ukraine of a huge problem,” Shuvalov said in comments cleared for publication Nov. 30. “We can also give them a loan, but we will not help them without commitments on their part.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that neither party expected the disagreement to escalate like this, and that leaders "seemed taken aback by the scale of the protests, but had few obvious levers to influence the situation."

“The Russians are now spectators to what is going on,” said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Kiev and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s something that’ll take place between the street and Yanukovych.”

Ukrainian government officials have insisted that the decision to break off negotiations with the EU has not closed the door entirely. First Deputy Prime Minister  Serhiy Arbuzov said in an interview with the website "forUm" that "Ukraine continues to move towards the European Union," and an agreement would be signed. 

"I still have optimistic mood, because there are agreements on road map. And I'm talking not about the conditions of the Association but about the problems that we planned to decide before signing and after signing of the Association Agreement. We knew the risks and had calculations. We told Europe about our problems. We found understanding. Unfortunately, it was not previously put on paper," he stressed.

According to the first deputy Prime Minister, due to this the agreement could not be signed in Vilnius. "We will correct this situation. We will create a working group. I think Europe will support us," he said.

Bloomberg Businessweek writes that corruption and political upheaval have left Ukraine "far behind its neighbors," as "the economy is stagnating, budget and trade deficits are ballooning, and the central bank is running low on reserves." 

Ukraine could have faced a miserable winter if it hadn’t cozied up to Russia and turned its back on a trade deal with the European Union. Moscow had hinted it would tighten the screws on Ukraine’s gas supply if the EU deal went through. It has already slapped restrictions on trade with Ukraine, which now sends about one-quarter of its exports to Russia.

But in opting for short-term relief, Ukraine may have condemned itself to long-term status as Europe’s worst economic basket case.

Twenty years ago, per capita incomes in Ukraine were about the same as in nearby countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia, and Romania. No more. Ukraine is now by far the region’s poorest country (apart from tiny Moldova), with incomes averaging no more than half the level of its neighbors.

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