KIEV, (Reuters) – Anti-government protesters toppled a statue of Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine’s capital and attacked it with hammers today in a symbolic challenge to President Viktor Yanukovich and his plans for closer ties with Russia.
The gesture rejecting Moscow’s historic influence over Ukraine came after opposition leaders told hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on Kiev’s Independence Square to keep up pressure on Yanukovich to sack his government.
The protesters are furious that the government decided last month to ditch a landmark pact with the European Union in favour of closer economic cooperation with Moscow, Ukraine’s Soviet-era overlord.
Yanukovich’s sudden tack towards Russia has provoked the biggest street protests since the 2004-5 Orange Revolution, when people power forced a re-run of a fraud-tainted election and thwarted his first run for the presidency.
“Yanukovich, you are next!” read a poster stuck on the plinth where the red granite statue of Lenin had stood. People hacked off chunks of the prostrate – and now headless – leader of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution to take home as souvenirs.
Cheered by the crowd, a woman planted an EU flag on the pedestal where the 3-1/2 metre (11 feet, 6 inch)-high statue had stood since 1946.
Opposition leaders denied any link to its removal, clearly concerned that such an act could harm their cause. The spokesman of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov called the felling of the statue “barbarism”, Interfax news agency reported.
The authorities and protesters have confronted each other for weeks, raising fears for political and economic stability in the former Soviet republic of 46 million people.
The demonstrators have erected blockades to defend the central Independence Square – now transformed into a tent village, sustained by donations of food and clothing – from any police attempt to retake it. They are occupying key public buildings and today erected blockades and tents on roads in the government district.
“This is a decisive moment when all Ukrainians have gathered here because they don’t want to live in a country where corruption rules and where there is no justice,” said Vitaly Klitschko, a reigning world heavyweight boxing champion and leader of the opposition Udar (Punch) party.
Ukraine’s opposition accuses Yanukovich, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, of preparing to take the country into a Moscow-led customs union, which they see as an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.