Thousands of Ukrainians massed outside parliament Tuesday as lawmakers debated a no-confidence motion against the government after its scrapping of a deal with the EU prompted the largest protests in nearly a decade.
The demonstration followed huge weekend protests that saw violent clashes with police, who sprayed tear gas and threw stun grenades, causing dozens of injuries.
The protests were the biggest in the ex-Soviet country since the Orange Revolution in 2004 overturned a fraud-tainted poll and forced a new election won by a pro-Western reformer.
Although the violence had subsided on Tuesday, there was no let up in demonstrators' demands that President Viktor Yanukovych resign.
Speaking in a late Monday interview shown on several Ukrainian channels, Yanukovych had conceded that police “went too far” in the weekend clashes, but claimed that they “were provoked by something”.
Hundreds of riot police were encircling the parliament building, facing thousands of demonstrators and a sea of Ukrainian flags.
“We will stay here until victory. We aren't afraid of anything,” said one protester, Anatoly Krilushkin, 65.
“We are demonstrating for democracy,” said Marta Mikitich, 21, holding a coffee, who had travelled from Lviv in western Ukraine.
The opposition's vote of no confidence in the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov channelled the protesters' anger over Ukraine abandoning the historic pact with the European Union.
The EU had set the release of Yanukovych's top rival Yulia Tymoshenko — who in 2011 was sentenced to seven years on abuse-of-power charges — as a key condition for signing the deal with Ukraine.
The opposition needs 226 votes in the 450-seat parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, to pass the no-confidence vote. But given the dominance of Yanukovych's Regions Party in the chamber, it was unclear whether the opposition would garner the necessary support.
Nikolai Tomenko, a lawmaker from the party of jailed opposition leader Tymoshenko, said the opposition could muster only 215 votes.
Opposition leaders including former heavyweight world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko introduced the motion, saying that the government had betrayed the Ukrainian people by scrapping plans to sign the Association Agreement with the EU under pressure from Russia.
Ukraine was expected to sign the EU agreement at a summit last week after years of preparations, but Yanukovych backed out at the last minute, citing pressure from Moscow.
Yanukovych, in his Monday television interview, said he was in favour of closer ties to Europe, but that the planned deal was problematic and prepared in a rush.
“I believe that we should not cave in. We have to defend our own interests,” he said.
Yunukovych was scheduled to leave Ukraine on Tuesday on a three-day trip to China.
Meanwhile, his government and Russia sought to undermine the image of the protests being pro-democracy and representative of the Ukrainian public.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to pull Ukraine into a Russian customs union, said that protests “seem more like a pogrom than a revolution”.
“These actions were prepared from outside. We see how well-organised groups of fighters are involved,” Putin said.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov said the situation bore all the hallmarks of a “coup d'etat”.
The United States and France challenged that statement.
“We certainly don't consider peaceful demonstrations coup attempts,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in Washington.
“This is not a coup d'etat. I haven't seen a military intervention and the characteristics of a coup d'etat are not supported,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday told Radio France Internationale in Paris.