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Thousands March To Warn Ukrainian Government On Crisis Moves

Union members march in Kyiv.
KYIV (Reuters) -- Five thousand trade unionists marched through Kyiv's city center to warn Ukraine's government against implementing any cuts to jobs and benefits in a country battered by the world financial crisis.

The marchers, waving Communist Party and union flags, massed in Independence Square, focal point of the 2004 Orange Revolution that brought pro-Western politicians to power, and made their way to the government and parliament buildings.

Participants, bundled up against the drizzle and shuffling down ice-covered streets, carried placards reading "No to cuts in social benefits" and "We will achieve social justice."

"We will insist on our rights. Unemployment is everywhere," a man in his 40s wearing a fur-lined hood told Reuters television. "Let's just see how the government deals with this. They can't even sort things out among themselves."

A union leader read out a lengthy list of demands outside parliament, including consultation on policy with union members, a rejection of benefit cuts, and calls to limit price increases on staples.

Vasyl Khara, head of the federation of Ukrainian trade unions, said the demands would be submitted to the government.

"Our demands are real, aimed at protecting domestic producers and jobs," Khara told Reuters television.

"If, by February, we see our demands not being met, we will take a tough stand, declare a labor conflict to enable us to strike to force the government to carry out its job or resign."

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, known for her generous social spending, has repeated several times that she would not cut benefits.

Social upheaval has so far been limited in Ukraine despite predictions of a contracting economy next year, though several dozen motorists on December 22 clogged the city center to protest against difficulties in making repayments on their cars.

The former Soviet state is firmly in the grip of the crisis, with senior officials predicting the economy will shrink 5 percent in 2009. Thousands of workers in the steel industry, key for export revenues, have been sent home on unpaid leave.

The country has been jolted by four years of political turmoil with a shattered governing coalition linked to the 2004 "Orange" protests reinstated only last month.

President Viktor Yushchenko, locked in policy rows with Tymoshenko, last week said unemployment would double by April to 1.5 million in the country of 46 million.

The crisis has also sent the hryvnya currency into a tailspin as Ukraine faces a possible cutoff of gas supplies from Russia if arrears are not paid off by the New Year.