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Does Russia Deal Change The Game For Maidan Protesters?

Opposition protesters on Kyiv's Independence Square are pondering their next move after President Viktor Yanukovych was boosted by a bailout deal with Russia this week.
KYIV -- It's been a month since Ukrainian protesters first gathered on Kyiv's Independence Square on November 21 to express anger at their government's sudden rejection of European integration.

Since then, the Euromaidan protests have swelled, at one point reaching as many as 800,000. Demonstrators have occupied not only the square but Kyiv's city council and trade union buildings, undaunted by a series of violent police crackdowns.

But on December 17, the demonstrations were dealt a setback when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych signed an impromptu $15-billion bailout deal with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that appeared to put any lingering hopes for EU integration on permanent hold.

Not everyone was worried. Oleksandr Povkhan, a 48-year-old blacksmith from the Western city of Lviv, who's been at the protests from the start, believes Yanukovych's actions mean little to most Ukrainians.

"The fact that he's traveling, the fact that he's off somewhere making decisions on behalf of the Ukrainian people -- none of that means anything," he said. "It doesn't mean anything because he already has no right to decide any kinds of problems in the name of the people. So we're standing here and we'll continue to stand here for as long as it takes in order to block and paralyze these bandits in the government."

Protest Fatigue?

The midweek deal was met with defiance on Maidan, but also with decidedly thinner crowds. Those who remained shrugged off any suggestion of protest fatigue, saying that many people were unable to come to the square during the week, and that it was the weekend gatherings that mattered.

With Kyiv's next big rallies set for December 22, many Ukrainians are waiting to see if Yanukovych's Moscow deal -- including loans and a one-third cut in the price of Russian gas -- will have a deflating effect on Euromaidan.

Viktor, a 36-year-old doctor who refused to give his last name, said he was "supporting, but not participating" in the Kyiv protests. But he was skeptical that the demonstrations would result in early elections, EU integration, or any other of the protesters' demands:

"Russia is blackmailing us, handing us conditions that are profitable for itself," he said. "Having lived under this state for 36 years, I don't think that things are going to get any better. So people will stand here, they'll demonstrate. Europe and America will criticize the authorities' methods. But I don't see any prospects for real change."

Many protesters have admitted to a growing sense of frustration with the three main opposition figures associated with Euromaidan -- Vitaliy Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok.

Although all three have been frequent and enthusiastic visitors to the square, there are doubts whether the odd troika can effectively manage the protesters' demands should the conflict transition to a political stage.

Ruslan Gidich, a 30-year-old trader from the western Volyn Oblast, said that none of the men are strong enough candidates to capitalize on early elections or other political concessions that a weakened Yanukovych might offer -- particularly Tyahnybok, whose nationalist views are distasteful to many Ukrainians.

Frustration Over Tymoshenko

He also expressed frustration than the three had not pushed harder for the release of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who, for many, is the figurehead of the Ukrainian opposition movement and is also the head of Yatsenyuk's own Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party.

"Yatsenyuk is another one. No one will support him," said Gidich. "Honestly, the only one who is fighting is Klitschko. I would vote for him; I find him appealing. He at least looks good on TV. But he's new to politics. But what I want to know is, why aren't they demanding that [jailed former Prime Minister] Yulia Tymoshenko be released? Because of their ambitions. Because they themselves want to be president."

Many protesters remain determined," however. "Fortified by hot meals, heated tents, and boisterous musical performances, they say they're prepared to stay well beyond New Year's to fight for their political goals.

Some have also expressed confidence that Yanukovych's murky deal -- which was signed with no parliamentary scrutiny or public debate -- may soon come back to haunt him.

Kyiv-based journalists like Maksim Eristavi have even gone so far as to suggest that Yanukovych may be forced to defend an unprofitable gas deal -- the same charges that critics say he used to put Tymoshenko in jail.

"It's a very promising thing that this whole movement kind of woke up civil society in Ukraine," Eristavi says. "And people have been protesting in such huge numbers, for such a long time, that you can even say that it's impossible this movement will not result in some political change in Ukraine."

Back on the square, 62-year-old pensioner Vasyl Dregush turns a grandfatherly eye on the throngs of students and youth activists getting their first taste of what it's like to fight for Ukraine.

Dregush, who traveled to Kyiv from Ternopil in western Ukraine, has indicated that he'll continue to report for protest duty every day -- "just like work" -- regardless of cold temperatures or the threat of more police crackdowns:

"Am I afraid? I'm not afraid of anything." He said. "Not for myself. But how many young people do you see here? It's for them that I'm afraid."