KIEV, Ukraine — About 20,000 people protested in Ukraine’s capital on Sunday, maintaining more than a month of rallies opposing the government’s decision to shelve a key deal with the European Union.
But the turnout on a clear, cold day was markedly lower than at previous rallies, which had attracted hundreds of thousands of people.
As it has before, Sunday’s rally opened with speeches by the country’s spiritual leaders, including Christian priests, a rabbi and a mufti who called for a national unity and stressed the protesters’ right to have the government they want.
Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the opposition national party Svoboda notorious for his racist rhetoric, emphasized that Ukrainians in the west and the east should unite to fight for their rights.
“We are all Ukrainians and want our fair demands to be met,” he said in his speech.
Most demonstrators in Kiev come from western and central regions, while many people in the mostly Russian-speaking east and the south back closer ties with Moscow.
The demonstrations were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision last month to spike the EU deal in favor of closer ties with Russia. The move angered many Ukrainians, who hoped that closer ties with the EU would help end centuries of Russia’s domination.
The protests were galvanized by a brutal police crackdown on Nov. 30, but Yanukovych’s government has since limited the use of force in an apparent hope that protests will fizzle out.
Yanukovych also has sought to assuage the protesters’ anger by releasing some of the jailed opposition activists and suspending several top officials regarding the crackdown, but thousands of demonstrators have maintained their vigil and the crowd has swelled over the weekends. After several attempts to clear the protesters by force drew strong condemnation from the West, the president now appears set on waiting them out.
Kiev’s Independence square, or the Maidan, was filled with woodfire smoke on Sunday coming from field kitchens and stoves that protesters installed in the tents they have been living at for weeks. The city’s main street, Khreshchatyk, has been barricaded with wooden planks, sacks filled with snow, and car tires since November’s crackdown.
At Sunday’s rally, many of the demonstrators wore ribbons in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag and remained confident that their campaign will win.
Halina Kalymivska, 58, said the turnout could be lower than hoped because of the holiday season but that the underlying problems that sparked the protests have not gone away.
“It can’t go on like this any longer. We want a normal life so that we can at least afford basic food,” she said. “I don’t think that people are disillusioned. Nothing has changed. People will keep on protesting, even after the holidays.”
Opposition leaders continued pushing their demands for the Cabinet resignation, but they have toned down demands for Yanukovych’s ouster.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshchyna Party said the main three opposition parties that led the protest at the Maidan will work together ahead the 2015 presidential election to build a team “which is capable of making Ukraine a European country.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, a lawmaker from the same party, read an opposition manifesto in the square, demanding the government’s resignation and the firing of a riot police force blamed for the brutal November crackdown.