Ukraine protests echo around former Soviet Union

Protesters in Kiev blockade government building and call for 'revolution,' spurring anti-Putin protests in Armenia

As hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Kiev once again on Monday, calling for "revolution" as they blockaded government buildings, demonstrators also took to the streets in Armenia, where the government is considering signing the same Moscow-led bill that kicked off Ukraine's mass unrest.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to abandon a trade pact with the European Union and instead seek closer economic ties with Russia has stirred deep passions in a country where many people yearn to join the European mainstream and escape Moscow's orbit.

Critics say the move followed intense pressure from the Russian government, which appears to also be leaning on other countries in its sphere of influence.

"We have no other choice but to defend ourselves and the gains we have made," said Taras Revunets, a protester at Kiev's city hall, which hundreds of demonstrators occupied on Sunday and Monday, turning the building into an operational hub. Revunets said he and his fellow protesters were prepared to endure a government military crackdown.

Demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday, which saw violent clashes with the police, drew as many as 350,000 people, the biggest public rally in the ex-Soviet state since the "Orange Revolution" overturned a stolen election nine years ago.

"Our plan is clear: It's not a demonstration, it's not a reaction. It's a revolution," said former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko, speaking from the top of a bus.

Al Jazeera's David Chater, reporting from Kiev, said the government had ordered 1,000 Interior Ministry troops to secure government buildings, as the number of protesters grew.

"The blockade is severely disrupting the process of government here," he said. "Essentially, President Yanukovich has lost control of the center of Kiev."

Monday's rally was peaceful until a group of protesters tried to storm Yanukovich's office and police chased protesters away with tear-gas and truncheons, injuring dozens.

External pressure

Ukraine's unrest spurred mirroring demonstrations in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, on Monday, where Russian President Vladimir Putin was on a visit to convince the Armenian government to sign on to the same Moscow-led Customs Union that protesters are rallying against in Ukraine.

Some of the crowd of about 500 in Yerevan held banners declaring "Putin, go home" or "No to the USSR," a reference to the Russian leader's efforts to bind former Soviet republics together more closely in economic and security alliances.

Russia is the biggest foreign investor in Armenia and its largest trading partner.

"We are going to strengthen our position in the South Caucasus, drawing on the best of what we have inherited from ancestors and good relations with all countries in the region," Putin told a Russian-Armenian regional forum in Gyumri. "Participation in the Customs Union ... already is bringing Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus tangible dividends," he said.

Kremlin critics in the West accuse Putin of putting pressure on Ukraine, Armenia and other former Soviet republics to reject agreements that would increase their integration with the EU. Putin has made clear Moscow wants to increase its influence in the strategic region sandwiched between Russia, Turkey, Iran and the oil and gas deposits of the Caspian Sea basin.

Bulgarian President Rosen Plevniev, speaking at the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Lithuania on Friday, praised the signing of partnership agreements between the EU and Georgia and Moldova, who he suggested were under pressure from Russia to turn away from the West.

"In spite of the external pressure that Georgia and Moldova faced, those two countries clearly showed commitment to European values and the political wills to reform their economies and to build modern democracies," Bulgaria's state news agency quoted the president as saying.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso echoed charges that Russia had imposed "external pressure" on Ukraine, which suspended negotiations with the EU last week.

A 'pogrom,' not a revolution

The rallies in Armenia pale in comparison to what is unfolding in Kiev, where protesters are establishing tented camps in Independence Square to dig in for a long campaign.

Parliament is scheduled to convene on Tuesday for a no-confidence vote in Yanukovich, as per opposition requests, and prominent opposition politicians leading the protests in Kiev have declared a nationwide strike.

As protests build up steam and the government cracks down, former supporters from the ruling Party of the Regions have begun to defect. A top Agriculture Ministry official announced his resignation Monday, joining ex-interior minister Lutsenko and at least two other party members who quit over the weekend.

"He's been losing his legitimacy for a long time. His decision to send police in to beat up children was the last straw," said Oleksander, 49, a protester on Independence Square who said he had voted for Yanukovich in the past and joined the Party of the Regions.

"Yanukovich will do whatever Putin tells him to do," he said.

With the capital turning against him, Yanukovich on Monday called for rallies to remain peaceful, and for protesters and police alike to observe the law.

"Any bad peace is better than a good war," his website quoted him as saying in a television interview, his first comments about the mass unrest.

In comments to reporters in Armenia on Monday, the Russian president came to the defense of his allies in Kiev and offered an alternative interpretation of the unrest in Ukraine: He said the protests were not a reaction to the EU deal but rather had been organized by outside actors seeking to uproot Ukraine's legitimate rulers.

"This reminds me more of a pogrom than a revolution," Putin said.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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