Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Pro-European Union activists warm themselves at a bonfire during a rally in Independence Square in Kiev on Friday, Dec. 20, 2013. Anti-government demonstrators continued to occupy Kiev's Independence Square, expressing their anger over a bailout Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych negotiated with Russia earlier this week.

Ukrainian protesters cling to their camps as holidays divert crowds

As they enters their second month, pro-European protests in Ukraine appear to be losing momentum after financial aid from Russia averted an economic crunch. 

As thousands gathered in Kiev’s central square on Sunday, five weeks after huge antigovernment protests first flared, the movement's leaders tried to rally the crowd's spirits for the battle that lies ahead. 

“We will not leave!” shouted Vitali Klitschko, a prominent organizer. “We will celebrate New Year here. We will celebrate Christmas here with our families.” (Ukraine's Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7.) 

Yet it is precisely these holidays, as well as freezing temperatures and the government’s unwillingness to bend to the protesters’ demands, that has rattled these leaders. President Viktor Yanukovych has rejected calls to step down and call early elections. Sunday's crowd was estimated at 75,000 to 100,000 people, a substantial turnout. But, as the protest enters its second month, organizers face a stiff challenge in maintaining momentum. 

Last week Russia threw the embattled Ukrainian president an economic lifeline by agreeing to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainian bonds and to discount natural gas shipments, which could save Ukraine an additional $2 billion a year.

The agreement provides short-term stabilizers to an economy that had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet it may ultimately be more of a liability than a victory for Mr. Yanukovych, who still faces legions of angry protestors camped out on the capital's streets, says Andreas Umland, professor of political science at the National University of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev. The deal made the president look “like he is selling out the country to Russia,” says Mr. Umland. 

The president’s choice to strike a deal with Russia rather than the EU has angered those who had hoped the country would inch in Europe’s direction. 

“The people on the street feel angry and betrayed by this treaty,” says Alisa Ruban, the international secretary for Democratic Alliance, an opposition party. “We know that this money won’t go to the people or to helping the country. It will go to Yanukovych and a few businessmen he is close to,” she says.

Moscow’s financial package came a month after Ukraine scuttled a free-trade agreement with the EU. Russia, the country’s largest trade partner, vehemently opposed the deal – a message made clear by its use of trade sanctions. Ukraine had also been in talks with the IMF for an emergency loan. 

Many are concerned that Russian aid could hobble Ukraine's economy in the long term, since it requires none of the painful fixes that the IMF was demanding in return for similar financial assistance: greater government transparency, judiciary reforms, and improvements in oversight. 

“Longer-term risks to the credit profile remain,” said international rating agency Fitch Ratings in a statement last week. “In pursuing Russian rather than IMF support, the Ukrainian government has avoided policy conditions ultimately aimed at helping revive its economy."

Ukraine is not out of the woods yet. Its business environment remains weak, its GDP has declined for the past five consecutive quarters, and it needs to repay $8 billion to creditors in 2014. 

But the deal with Russia is a clear victory for Moscow, especially coming so close on the heels of a sobering announcement by the EU’s commissioner for enlargement Štefan Füle that talks with Ukraine were being put on hold until the country showed a firm commitment.

And although Yanukovych insists that he still plans to sign the European agreement, potentially as early as next year, many Ukrainians put little faith in him or his promises.

Next steps

Despite plummeting approval ratings, Yanukovych remains firmly in power, and fatigue has begun to set on Kiev’s streets. 

“There is a very small hope that the protests will change the political situation, since there is no legal pressure on the government to reform,” says Kyryl Savin, director of the Kiev office of Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank allied with Germany’s Green Party. 

The next presidential election scheduled for early 2015 “is when change could happen,” he says.

Yanukovych has tried to counter any fallout from the Russian agreement by pledging to use some of the money to raise public-sector wages. Opinion polls suggest that, for the moment at least, he would lose to the opposition in a fair vote. 

In fact, if elections were held right now, the most likely man to become president would be Mr. Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion.

But with more than a year until the election, the Kiev movement needs to keep up its momentum, which has become harder following the Russian aid deal.

"Now it's even more difficult for them to formulate their demands,” says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. “What are they going to say? 'Let's not lower the price of gas'? 'Let's not take those easy Russian credits, but instead accept those IMF loans that have harsh austerity conditions attached'?" 

Recognizing the problem, protest leaders say that they will launch a new political umbrella movement for the various anti-Yanukovych factions. The movement will be named after Maidan, the central square in Kiev that has been the main theater for the protests. 

Fred Weir contributed reporting from Moscow.

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