Russian President Vladimir Putin said protests in Ukraine against its decision to abandon a European Union integration pact are an attempt to bring down its legitimate rulers.
Protesters blockaded the main government building, seeking to force President Viktor Yanukovych from office with a general strike after hundreds of thousands demonstrated against his decision to abandon the pact, which was scheduled to be signed last week.
Weekend demonstrations, which saw violent clashes with the police, drew as many as 350,000 people – the biggest public rally in the ex-Soviet state since the “Orange revolution” against sleaze and electoral fraud.
During a visit to Armenia, Mr Putin told reporters: “This is not a revolution but a very well prepared protest that in my view wasn’t prepared for today but... for the (Ukrainian) presidential election campaign in March 2015. This is an attempt to shake the current and, I want to emphasise, legitimate authorities in the country.”
Mr Putin said the protesters seemed “very well prepared and trained militant groups” – hinting that outsiders had been involved in training the demonstrators, an accusation he made against participants in Ukraine’s “Orange revolution” which overturned a stolen election nine years ago.
Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a trade pact with the EU and instead seek closer economic ties with Russia has stirred deep passions in a country where many people yearn to join the European mainstream and escape Moscow’s orbit.
The resulting unrest has hammered Ukraine’s financial markets, underlining the fragile state of the economy. The central bank was forced to intervene to prop up the hryvnia and threatened more action, underlining Kiev’s vulnerability as it seeks more than $17bn (£10.3bn) next year to meet gas bills and debt repayments.
In a video statement, its chairman said the bank would not introduce any financial restrictions. “I urge everyone to have confidence in the banking system and maintain their savings,” Ihor Sorkin said.
Ukraine is divided between those who see stability in close ties with Russia and those who see a more prosperous future in Europe. Since election in February 2010, Yanukovych has sought to straddle the divide, reassuring Ukrainians he could pursue close ties with Europe while managing relations with Moscow.
Even some supporters were shocked by the abruptness with which his government announced it was abandoning a long-awaited pact with the EU in favour of reviving economic ties with Russia. Scenes over the weekend of police beating demonstrators hardened opinion against him.
“Yanukovych will do whatever Putin tells him to do,” said Oleksander, 49, on Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters are establishing tented camps to dig in for a long campaign.
“He’s been losing his legitimacy for a long time. His decision to send police in to beat up children was the last straw.”