The men and women protesters of Kiev’s Independence Square turn out on the bitterly cold streets of Kiev because they want a future as part of the European Union.
Their anger erupted in November when President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a trade and political deal with the bloc and instead the former Soviet nation forged even closer ties with Russia. But as the months have passed, and new, repressive laws aimed at crushing the demonstrations have been signed, many are calling for tougher retaliatory measures from the institutions in Brussels that they hold so dear.
In the early days, the familiar gold stars and bright blue of the EU logo were seen on flags, beamed on buildings and even painted on faces.
Now they are harder to spot. A more common sight over the last few days has been smoke and fireworks soaring into the night sky; buses burning on broken paving slabs; riot police crouched on the ground, their shields up and ready for the blows.
The new laws hastily passed through Ukraine’s parliament last week came into force today. Ukrainians handing out anti-government leaflets could now face jail. The tents set up in Independence Square could be declared illegal and pulled down. There is a ban on helmets and face-coverings at protests, fines and prison sentences for setting up unauthorised structures or stages, and curbs on the dissemination of “extremist information” and libelling the nation’s leaders.
The laws spurred hundreds of thousands of people to return to Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, on Sunday, and have fuelled the rage that led to the first street violence in two months, during which time the pro-EU movement has grown into a broader push to topple the government.
In pictures: Clashes between police and demonstrators in Kiev, Ukraine
In pictures: Clashes between police and demonstrators in Kiev, Ukraine
Anti-government protesters clash with police on Hrushevskoho Street in Ukraine's capital city on Friday night
Anti-government protesters attempt to take over the Ukrainian House on Sunday night
Protesters and police officers clash during the night of Friday to Saturday. After two months of primarily peaceful anti-government protests in the city center, new laws meant to end the protest movement have sparked violent clashes in recent days
Anti-government protesters clash with policemen in Kiev on Friday night as the protests continue in Ukraine
Anti-government protesters gather around a fire to get warm at a road block in Kiev on 26 January
An anti-government protester prepares to throw a Molotov cocktail during the clashes between protesters and policemen on 24 January
Anti-government protesters hurl Molotov cocktails and burn tires during clashes with police on Hrushevskoho Street near Dynamo stadium on January 24
Protesters confront police in central Kiev on Friday night
Anti-government protesters launches a firework towards police near the Dynamo Stadium in Kiev
Rob Stothard/Getty Images
A protester waves a Ukrainian flag during clashes with police in central Kiev
A protester throws a tire onto a fire in Kiev
Opposition leader and former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko addresses protesters near the burning barricades between police and protesters in central Kiev
A protester breaks up a mannequin on the roof of the burned truck during clashes with police in central Kiev
A protester throws tires onto a fire during a clash with police in central Kiev
Thick black smoke from burning tires engulfed parts of downtown Kiev as an ultimatum issued by the opposition to the president to call early election or face street rage was set to expire with no sign of a compromise
Protesters use a large slingshot to hurl a Molotov cocktail at police in central Kiev
Burning members of the Ukrainian riot police due to the gasoline bombs hurled by anti-government protestors during the clashes in central Kiev
A demonstrator holds an incendiary device as protesters clash with police in the center of Kiev
Protesters burn tires as they clash with riot police during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
Protesters clash with police in central Kiev. Police in Ukraine's capital tore down protester barricades and chased demonstrators away from the site of violent clashes, hours after two protesters died after being shot
A riot police officer escorts a man as a woman with a cross reacts nearby during clashes between police and pro-European protesters in Kiev
Riot policemen arrest a protestor during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
An injured man is escorted during clashes between police and pro-European protesters in Kiev
Medical workers help an injured man during anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
Medical personnel transport a man who was injured during clashes with riot police in Kiev
A man reacts after he was injured during a rally held by pro-European protesters in Kiev
An Orthodox priest tries to stop clash protesters the police in the center of Kiev
Ukrainian priests stand between protesters and riot police officers during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
An elderly woman walks from police officers as they block a street during unrest in central Kiev
An Ukrainian opposition activist speak to riot-forces standing guard in front of the parliament in Kiev
A protester smokes at the barricade in front of armour-clad security forces blocking access to the Verkhovna Rada parliament in Kiev
Pro-European protester take cover during clashes with riot police in Kiev. Two demonstrators were reported killed in new anti-government unrest in the Ukrainian capital, inflaming protesters who confronted police shouting 'Murderers' and 'Glory to Ukraine!'
Pro-European protesters launch a pyrotechnic pistol towards riot police during clashes in Kiev
A police officer throws a Molotov cocktail during clashes with protesters in central Kiev
A pro-European protester lies on the ground during clashes with riot police in Kiev
Demonstrators beat on a burnt vehicle as pro-European integration protesters hold a rally in Kiev
People stand on a barricade during a clashing break of the opposition and the police in Kiev
Protesters tip over a burnt out police bus during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
A pro-European protester fires a pneumatic gun during clashes with Ukrainian riot police in Kiev
Protesters wearing headbands reading 'Help' shout slogans during an action entitled 'Impose sanctions - stop the violence' in front of the European Union delegation in Ukraine in Kiev. Participants of the rally urged the European Union to immediately impose personal sanctions for those responsible for the use of force against peaceful protesters and journalists, as well as involved in the adoption of unconstitutional laws in Ukraine that violate fundamental human rights
A pro-European integration protester catches fire during clashes with police in Kiev
A pro-European integration protester sits in a burnt police bus after a rally near government administration buildings in Kiev
A pro-European integration protester uses a slingshot during clashes with police in Kiev
A bare chested man waves a Ukrainian flag during clashes between the opposition and police in the centre of Kiev. Opposition protesters were today locked in a tense standoff with Ukrainian police in Kiev after bloody clashes that wounded over 200 people, as President Viktor Yanukovych called emergency talks to resolve the crisis
A protester sprays fire in the direction of the riot police during clashes in the centre of Kiev. EU foreign ministers deplored violent protests in Kiev, saying the government was at fault for passing a package of repressive laws in an effort to tame pro-EU demonstrations
Pro-European integration protesters carry Molotov cocktails during clashes with police in Kiev. Protesters clashed with riot police in the Ukrainian capital after tough anti-protest legislation, which the political opposition says paves the way for a police state and was rushed through parliament
A protester prays as he holds an open Bible during an anti-government protest in downtown Kiev
Protesters clad in improvised protective gear prepare for a clash with police in central Kiev
Pro-European protesters bang on a metal bin during a rally in Kiev
A clergyman opposes riot police in Kiev during a rally held by pro-European integration demonstrators. Protesters gathered in Independence Square as repressive new laws came into force
Pro-European Union activists sing the national anthem in central Kiev
EU officials have condemned the new laws. The Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, called them the “most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades”. After a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign ministers urged Ukraine to reverse laws they said would “significantly restrict the Ukrainian citizens’ fundamental rights of association”.
Yet at the same time, the foreign ministers again committed themselves to signing the association agreement Mr Yanukovych backed out of in November “as soon as Ukraine is ready”. It has raised questions about the mixed messages the EU is sending to Kiev.
“The association agreement should still be on the table for Ukraine, but not necessarily for the present administration, which has compromised itself by refusing to sign in Vilnius and now by introducing draconian unconstitutional laws and using violence against the Euro-Maidan [protesters],” Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Polish MEP and vice-president of the centre-right European People’s Party, told The Independent. He said the agreement should remain and the EU should “wait for a president who is credible and has good intentions – not only to sign but also to implement – which is not the case of Yanukovych,” he added.
Mr Saryusz-Wolski advocates sanctions such as a travel ban and asset freeze on certain government officials. The United States has also threatened economic sanctions over the new laws.
Any suggestion of concrete measures against Mr Yanukovych is welcome in Independence Square, where protesters remain despite the new laws.
“The EU should take sanctions against Ukrainian leaders and their families,” said Viktoriya, 28, who works in marketing. “Both the EU and US should close their bank accounts and ban entrance... Then they will have only one place to take their luxury holidays – the same as the Belarussian President now – Russia.”
It is, however, the spread of democratic values through engagement which is supposed to guide the EU, and an official said sanctions would only be used as “a last resort”. They certainly would not be applied while the new laws could still be challenged in the courts and while the government was engaging with the opposition. The association agreement remained on the table because “this is a way for Ukraine to become a more modern European state”, the EU official said.
This response will not please everyone in Independence Square. One protester replied to a recent Tweet by Mr Bildt with a simple plea: “It’s getting late. You sat and waited. We asked for help. It’s too late!!!”
Russia, however, sees matters differently and has accused Europe of meddling in Ukraine’s affairs. Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, again blamed European politicians for stoking tensions in Kiev.
“We would prefer that some of our European colleagues refrained from acting unceremoniously over the Ukrainian crisis, when, without any kind of invitation, members of certain European governments rush to the Maidan, take part in anti-government demonstrations in a country with which they have diplomatic relations,” he said at a press conference. “It is just distasteful.”
The tug-of-war over Ukraine has strained relations between Moscow and Brussels, with EU politicians accusing the Kremlin of using a combination of bribes and blackmail to convince President Yanukovych to shun the association agreement. Ukraine has received a £9bn aid package from Russia, and assurances of discounted gas.
Mr Lavrov also cautioned that the situation in Kiev was “spinning out of control”, saying the protesters who have attacked police with fireworks, sticks and stun grenades represent a “complete violation of all European standards of behaviour”.
The leader of the opposition, the former boxer Vitali Klitschko, has condemned attacks on police, which some protesters have blamed on small nationalist groups. But he seems unable to stop the violence, and a stalemate remains. Opposition figures may have brought hundreds of thousands on the streets, but President Yanukovych retains a majority in parliament, the backing of the nation’s influential oligarchs, and the support of many in eastern Ukraine.
Trying to maintain some calm, three priests stood between protesters and police. But this measure can’t last. The EU hopes that planned talks between Mr Klitschko and the President will produce results, but Mr Yanukovych refused to see the Udar (Punch) party leader.
For now, protesters hope just the threat of sanctions will be enough to keep them safe. “Officials would not want to enforce the crackdown for fear of going on the list,” said 26-year-old Artem.