KYIV -- Protesters calling for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to enact anticorruption reforms or step down scuffled with police in front of Ukraine’s parliament at a rally organized by firebrand politician Mikheil Saakashvili and other opposition leaders.
The mainly peaceful demonstration on October 17 briefly turned violent when a group of protesters first attempted to bring tents into the area in front of parliament.
Security forces used tear gas as they tried to stop the crowd, which police estimated at about 4,500, according to state news agency Ukrinform, about one-third of what organizers had hoped for.
Police said that four people were injured during street clashes, including a police officer who was hospitalized. Three injured civilians received medical treatment at the scene, a police spokesman said. He added that no one had been detained in connection with the clashes.
By early evening, demonstrators had erected more than half a dozen camping-style tents in front of parliament and were setting up more.
They also managed to bring metal shields into the security area, echoing measures taken by activists in the massive Euromaidan protests that pushed Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014.
Mustafa Nayyem, a reformist lawmaker and Poroshenko critic whose November 2013 Facebook post is widely seen as a catalyst of the Euromaidan protests, said in a Facebook post that the tents would remain in front of parliament and that demonstrators would gather again there on October 19.
Saakashvili, the former Georgian president and governor of Ukraine's Odesa region who has been stripped of both his Georgian and Ukrainian citizenship, had called for the demonstration last month after he returned to Ukraine in defiance of President Petro Poroshenko's government.
That call was backed by most of Ukraine's opposition parties, which sent prominent lawmakers, veterans of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and others critical of Poroshenko’s ruling coalition. They are demanding the creation of anticorruption courts, the abolition of parliamentary immunity from prosecution, and an overhaul of Ukraine's electoral legislation.
Protestors erected a wooden gate near the entry way police had set up to the area around parliament, with one side dedicated to those lawmakers who don’t support the three demands, while the second side had a sign saying "I hear the people" for those who support the goals.
"If Poroshenko again does not hear us and tries to buy some time as he has been doing all these three years [of his presidency], then I think we will have to move to another place on this square," Saakashvili told the crowd, suggesting he could seek to hold a bigger and more sustained protest.
"I call on residents of Kyiv, after their work is over -- because we do not plan to leave this site -- to come here, to join us and...make Poroshenko think about leaving his post," he said.
As lawmakers met inside the parliament building, Poroshenko appeared to address one of the demands in a Facebook post. He wrote that lawmakers’ immunity has "turned into a guarantee [of] impunity” and proposed that the constitution be amended to abolish it.
Tensions have been running high after Ukraine's SBU security agency warned on October 16 that "armed provocations" were planned for the protest, and that agents had thwarted an effort by two former activists of a group it called the Revolutionary Right Forces to acquire automatic weapons and rocket launchers, to be used during the rally.
Saakashvili has pledged that the demonstration would be peaceful, but security was tight. The authorities set up cordons in front of parliament and closed off streets in the government quarter of central Kyiv, and demonstrators could only enter the rally area after passing through metal detectors.
Valeriy Parkhomchuk, an activist from the Dnipro region who supports Saakashvili, held up two signs -- one showing an image of Poroshenko in crosshairs and another with the president behind bars. He said Poroshenko has "betrayed the Ukrainian idea."
"He is corrupt and belongs in prison," Parkhomchuk said, adding that he believes a “third Maidan” -- meaning another change of power -- is inevitable.
"There will be blood on the streets again, 100 percent," he said.
Saakashvili was previously an ally of Poroshenko, who appointed him governor of Odesa in 2015.
He resigned in November 2016, complaining of rampant corruption and saying reform efforts were being blocked, and has since turned his outspoken rhetoric against Poroshenko and his allies.
Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship in July, when he was outside the country. He lost his Georgian citizenship in 2015, and authorities in Tbilisi have begun criminal proceedings against him.
Saakashvili forced his way back into Ukraine on September 10, defying border guards and vowing to reenter politics.