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Ukraine's winter of discontent

It's no pleasure braving the harsh Ukrainian winter for weeks on end, but anti-government demonstrators have not let subfreezing temperatures or snow and ice weaken their resolve. The demonstrations that have been going on since November in the capital Kiev and other cities are proof that a broad segment of the citizenry wants a drastic change in the country's leadership and won't give up until they get it.

President Viktor Yanukovych seems to be realising as much, perhaps too late. On Saturday, he tried to defuse the crisis by offering to appoint opposition leaders to plum posts as prime minister and deputy prime minister. He pledged to curb expanded powers he had claimed and relax tough curbs on dissent enacted just this month. His retreat didn't succeed. The opposition leaders flatly rejected the bid to give them a taste of power under the thumb of Yanukovych.

Yanukovych ignited this movement when he abruptly rejected a long-sought deal that would have begun integrating the country into the European Union. The reversal came after Vladimir Putin offered financial aid while threatening trade sanctions against Ukraine, which was ruled by his brutal predecessors under the Soviet Union. The Russian president wants to keep its neighbour firmly in the Russian camp, heedless of the preferences of the Ukrainian people.

The US and its European allies missed an opportunity to outbid Putin and lure Ukraine into stronger Western economic ties. But the turn toward Moscow has prompted an outpouring of public anger at Putin as well as Yanukovych, who embodies the dismal fortunes of the country and the unhappy outcome of the peaceful 2005 Orange Revolution.

Many Ukrainians hope to follow the Western model, becoming prosperous and democratic. But a corrupt and repressive government has repeatedly dashed those hopes.

Its crackdown on these protests betrayed its true nature. Last week, tens of thousands of people turned out for the funeral of a protester who allegedly was kidnapped by government agents, beaten and abandoned in a forest, where he froze to death. Other opponents of the government have been arrested or disappeared.

In response to such brutality, the anti-government movement has ratcheted up its own pressure. On Sunday, protesters took over the Justice Ministry in Kiev, dramatising the regime's diminishing control over events in the capital and elsewhere. Yanukovych has to wonder if he has enough troops and police to hang on - and if those forces will remain loyal should he try to impose martial law.

The president can't defuse the crisis without bigger concessions, such as freeing his rival, former President Yulia Tymoshenko, who is in prison, and reviving the agreements that had been reached with the European Union. But it will likely take his resignation, or at least a new election. Weary of economic stagnation, resentful of Russian domination and averse to his intolerance of dissent, the people of Ukraine are rejecting his rule.

For two months, they have demonstrated their determination to bring about change. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Saturday they are in for the duration. "We're finishing what we started," he admonished the president. "The people decide our leaders, not you."

In the dead of winter, there is the promise of spring.


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