Ukraine's political opposition said on Friday that President Viktor Yanukovych had "stolen the dream" of closer integration with Europe as his supporters hailed his decision to spurn an EU free trade deal.
In a sea of blue and gold, the colors of both the EU and Ukrainian flags, some 10,000 protesters chanted “Ukraine is Europe” in Independence Square, the theater of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 that thwarted Yanukovich's first presidential bid.
“Today they stole our dream, our dream of living in a normal country,” said heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, a contender for the 2015 presidential election. “The failure to sign the agreement of association is treason,” he told the roaring crowd.
Yanukovich's decision to suspend a deal that would have aligned Ukraine's economy more closely with Europe's by opening borders to goods, and set the stage for an easing of travel restrictions, was for many an opportunity lost.
“Europe was the way out of the mess we're in, the way out of
the corruption that has overwhelmed our country,” said Andrey Dobrolet, 41, a lawyer.
“But now we see the real colors of the people in power,” he said, after an announcement that Yanukovych was leaving a summit in Vilnius without the free trade agreement that had been months in negotiation.
Some wiped away tears on Friday, huddling around oil barrels where wood, window frames and crates were being burned to keep protesters warm.
“I expected this, but the people will continue to fight and tensions will continue,” said Sergei Bandar, 61, a pensioner.
As pro-EU protesters sang Ukraine's national anthem, the slow melody was interrupted by a rival rally on another square some 200 meters away, where people cheered Yanukovych and his decision to strengthen ties with Russia.
Here, on European Square, some 3,000-4,000 people, many of them bussed in from Yanukovych strongholds in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, gathered near a hastily constructed stage, where singers sang popular songs and speakers warned of the dangers of European integration.
“If we had signed, we would have opened our borders and killed our own manufacturers,” said Anatoliy Bliznyuk, a parliamentarian from Yanukovych's Regions Party.
The two rallies reflected the linguistic and cultural split between the Ukrainian-speaking west, where support for the EU had been strong, and the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, from which Yanukovych himself hails.
The stage-managed look of the meeting led to accusations that the attendees had been paid to show up, a practice not uncommon in Ukraine, where the average monthly salary is around $400. No one was willing to speak to a Reuters journalist.
“No one can tell us what to do. We will build our own Europe in Ukraine. Are we worse than Europe?” Artyom Silchenko, a student, told a state television channel.
Despite the proximity of the two demonstrations, there were no reports of violence between protesters. But local media said five journalists had been beaten up b
'sportsmen', code for thugs enforcing the government's will on the street.
Yanukovych denies using any such tactics.
Some on Independence Square took heart from the fact that Yanukovych said he was only suspending plans to sign the trade deal, not canceling them altogether.
“I'm an optimist, we are located right next to Europe, and we have elections in two years' time,” said Roman Dashchaksky, 27. “Sooner or later, integration is inevitable.”