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Yanukovych's Options Appear To Dwindle As Energized Opposition Moves South, East

As the streets of Kyiv are convulsed with unrest, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (right) places a candle to mark the country's Day of Unity on January 22.
As the streets of Kyiv are convulsed with unrest, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (right) places a candle to mark the country's Day of Unity on January 22.
KYIV -- Ukraine's Euromaidan protest movement has gained fresh momentum as the country's embattled President Viktor Yanukovych seemed to spend the weekend losing old friends while failing to make new ones.

Demonstrators kept a steady drumbeat in the capital Kyiv, buoyed by a 24-hour cycle that saw opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk decline Yanukovych's partnership deal and protesters oust some 200 police from makeshift headquarters in a Kyiv congress center.

Meanwhile, protests continued to spread into parts of Ukraine once considered Yanukovych's base. Thousands of pro-Maidan demonstrators gathered outside the regional administration headquarters in Zaporyzhzhya in the country's traditionally pro-Russian east. In the neighboring region of Dnipropetrovsk, hard-core football fans known as "ultras" provided security for protesters marching on the local government.

In Odesa to the south, close to 1,000 protesters marched on the regional government building, facing off against a smaller group of police and pro-government activists.

In western Ukraine, where anti-Yanukovych sentiment remains high, Maidan supporters have seized control of nearly all regional councils, with members in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, and Khmelnytskiy issuing rulings on January 26 that ban the activity and symbols of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party.

The events appear to leave few easy options for Yanukovych, whose own Party of Regions on January 25 submitted a draft bill to parliament aimed at cancelling the so-called "dictatorship laws" signed by the president a week ago cracking down on public protests and free-speech rights.

Yanukovych had earlier pledged to consider softening some of the laws, which went into effect on January 22, sparking clashes between police and protesters that led to the deaths of at least three protesters. The deaths were the first casualties in the two-month conflict over Yanukovych's surprise rejection of a European Union deal in favor of closer Russian ties.

PHOTO GALLERY: Protesters Storm Ukrainian House

The text of the new bill has yet to appear on the website of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. But it is thought to propose a full cancelation of the laws, one of the opposition's key demands, along with early presidential elections and the release of political prisoners, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Government Reshuffle

Yanukovych stayed largely quiet on January 26, with the presidential press service acknowledging tersely that he had accepted the resignation of two top aides, spokeswoman Darya Chepak and Andriy Yermolayev, the head of the National Institute of Strategic Studies, a government think tank.

The dismissals appear to be the start of a government reshuffle that Yanukovych has pledged to announce at an extraordinary parliamentary session on January 28.

Lawmaker Anatoliy Hrytsenko served as defense minister under former President Viktor Yushchenko, Yanukovych's pro-democracy opponent in the 2004 Orange Revolution. He told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that the opposition is unlikely to settle for less than a full-scale housecleaning that includes Yanukovych himself.

"It's Yanukovych who's calling the shots, he said. "He's the person who bears responsibility. I think that if he still has his wits about him, then he should understand that the invisible Russian presence and the conflicts it's provoked also work against him personally. Because they're pushing him under Kremlin control. And he knows how all this may end, including for him personally. He won't be needed. It's important for Russia to pull [Ukraine] away from Europe -- once that's accomplished, they won't need Yanukovych anymore."
A shirtless man waves a Ukrainian flag during clashes between the opposition and police in downtown Kyiv on January 20.
A shirtless man waves a Ukrainian flag during clashes between the opposition and police in downtown Kyiv on January 20.

Ukraine's current defense minister, Pavlo Lebedyev, said on January 26 that the Ukrainian armed forces would not intervene in the current conflict. "The army will abide strictly by the constitution and laws of Ukraine," he said in an interview with the ITAR-TASS news agency.

It is expected that Yanukovych may use the upcoming parliamentary session to impose a state of emergency, a step that would legitimize the use of military power.

Perhaps mindful of the threat, opposition activists appeared interested in toning down the volume of their protests, at least temporarily.

Demonstrators spent January 26 sweeping up broken glass and clearing refuse from the Ukrainian House cultural center after protesters armed with stones and smoke bombs battled with police inside, eventually driving them to leave the building. Several police officers and at least one protester were reportedly injured in the clashes.

WATCH: Protesters Clean Up Ukrainian House After Takeover
Protesters Clean Up Building After Overnight Takeover
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Euromaidan organizers also canceled plans for a large-scale rally on the night of January 26, instead calling for an Independence Square memorial service for one of the protests' first two victims, Mikhail Zhyzneuski, a native of Belarus, who was shot in the chest.

Abductions, Live Ammunition

Patriarch Filaret, the 84-year-old leader of the Kyivan Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recently rejected a state award granted by Yanukovych, saying it was "unethical" to accept distinctions at a time when people are dying.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, the patriarch called for an end to violence on both sides of the political divide, but explicitly blamed the Berkut special forces for instigating the start of the bloodshed.

"It was the Berkut who began the killing, right?" he said. "And so [the protesters] met force with force. They're defending themselves. Why build barricades? To protect themselves. From whom? From the Berkut. The Berkut has beaten students. The Berkut has shot journalists."

Ukrainian forces say they have used only rubber bullets since the start of the January 22 violence. But demonstrators have recorded numerous cases of being struck with metal bullets.

On January 26, protesters reported finding 7.62-millimeter cartridges on the roof of Ukrainian House, a claim that would fuel speculation that police snipers have been involved in some protester deaths.

Human Rights Watch says it has recorded numerous instances of police beatings and kidnappings by unidentified assailants. Hundreds of protesters and journalists have been severely beaten or arrested in the past week, and a number remain missing, including the organizer of the Automaidan support network, Dmytro Bulatov, who has not been seen since January 23. Another opposition sympathizer, Yuriy Verbytsky, was found dead a day earlier after being abducted on January 21.

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Oleksandr Lashchenko and Iryna Shtogryn in Kyiv

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