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Tens Of Thousands Gather For Protest In Ukraine

Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych leads opinion polls among presidential contenders.
KYIV (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the Ukrainian capital to hear the ex-Soviet state's opposition leader demand the resignation of the country's leaders for failing to tackle the economic crisis.

President Viktor Yushchenko, meanwhile, said he was prepared to consider early elections for both president and parliament -- two days after parliament called an October presidential poll, earlier than anticipated. That vote was a resounding and rare consensus in the chamber aimed against the president.

Up to 20,000 protesters denouncing hardships linked to the financial crisis battering Ukraine, poured into Independence Square, focal point of the Orange Revolution that swept Yushchenko and other pro-Western politicians to power in 2004.

The demonstration, the second in as many weeks by the opposition Party of Regions, was the largest in Ukraine since the 2007 parliamentary election campaign.

"I think everyone in this square has one big wish -- change life for the better. And there is only one way to do this, when we are rid of those now in power," Viktor Yanukovych, Party of Regions leader and a former prime minister, told the crowd.

"The faster they go, the faster we will restore order together in the country, the faster our factories will be back at work and the faster our economy will start to grow."

Yanukovych said he was suspending protests to give Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's government until April 14 to present a program to counteract the crisis, which has hit markets for steel and chemical exports and cut jobs and living standards.

Ukrainian politics since Yushchenko's election has been dominated by constant sniping between him and Tymoshenko -- twice appointed prime minister.

Anticrisis Measures And The IMF

The government has drafted a series of measures to offset the effects of the crisis and parliament last week passed two measures to restore the flow of suspended credits under a $16.4 billion loan agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Tymoshenko has pressed for parliamentary approval of other measures sought by the IMF -- to balance the finances of Ukraine's pension fund and state energy firm Naftogaz.

But Yanukovych's party, the largest in parliament, disrupted the chamber's proceedings for two days this week, demanding an overall anticrisis plan. It has long called for early elections of both the president and parliament.

Yushchenko said he would agree to two early elections if such a decision took account of other measures to be undertaken.

"I am ready to take a decision on early presidential elections," Yushchenko, quoted by Ukrainian media, told journalists in western Ukraine. "I am unafraid of any sort of election, and that includes a presidential election."

Yushchenko had earlier denounced as illegal parliament's decision to call an October 25 presidential election. The assembly is empowered to call an election, but the poll was expected early in 2010 at the end of the president's five-year term.

Yanukovych leads opinion polls in the country of 46 million, with Tymoshenko close behind. Yushchenko trails, his rating reduced to single figures.