KYIV, Ukraine — Opposition leaders continued trading accusations and demands with the authorities Wednesday as protesters hunkered down for another night amid uncertainty and political turmoil in this post-Soviet capital.
The leaders of the country’s three main opposition parties told reporters in an occupied trade union building off central Independence Square that they believe security forces would provoke violence in order to discredit the protesters.
“This will be a precedent with which they will say that this is not a peaceful protest, but an aggressive one,” said boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, head of the UDAR Party.
A violent police assault against peaceful protesters — most of them students — on the square last weekend stirred fresh anger among demonstrators and opposition leaders, who have intensified their calls to fire the government and hold snap elections.
Rage over police abuses has fueled the massive public protests against the government’s refusal to sign key political and trade agreements with the EU last month.
After parliament — which is controlled by President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — failed to approve a no-confidence vote in the government on Tuesday, opposition politicians said they would call for round-the-clock blockades of key government buildings if the president fails to fire the cabinet.
Leading officials remain equally entrenched, casting the protests as acts of civil disobedience on the fringes of legality.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov warned on Wednesday that “all those who are guilty of illegal acts will answer for them.”
“Everybody must realize that the country's constitution and laws are in force — no one is allowed to violate them,” Reuters reported him as saying.
In a meeting late Wednesday with Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, Azarov expressed regret over the excessive use of force but suggested the police had been baited.
“There were not students on the square — there were well-prepared provocateurs,” he said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Jagland, who flew to Kyiv on Wednesday to meet with both the authorities and opposition leaders, said he would try to mediate a compromise.
“But I have also seen that too many are focusing on how to aggravate the situation,” the AP reported him as saying.
The crisis has also attracted the attention of Ukraine’s first three presidents, who in a joint statement expressed their support for the anti-government protests, the largest since the Orange Revolution in 2004.
But they also warned of further turmoil.
“The crisis is deepening and we see risks of losing control over the situation,” the statement read.
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Meanwhile, protesters prepared for another frigid evening in central Kyiv, where organizers have turned Independence Square into a revolutionary squat.
Bonfires billowed smoke into the night sky as rows of Ukrainian flags fluttered above the crowd. Demonstrators huddled around disused fountains, sipping hot beverages and shuffling clothes, food and wood into the barricaded square.
At the other end, a steady rotation of speakers worked the crowd of thousands from a large stage, occasionally leading them in chants decrying Yanukovych and his government.
The mood is largely festive, seemingly far removed from the political bickering that has marked the ongoing crisis, however, many appear determined to hunker down for the long haul.
Warming his hands over a trashcan fire, 46-year-old Yuriy Olkiv says he’ll stay “for as long as it takes.”
“If you want to change things and achieve your goal,” said the lanky, bespectacled private businessman from western Ukraine, “then it’s worth standing here and not letting go.”