Jews in Ukraine fear for their safety
Over 200,000 Ukrainians take to the streets in the midst of the worst political crisis in a decade
The widespread Ukranian protests have pushed the country’s Jewish communities to tighten up security arrangements, said a community leader from Kiev.
“Now that streets across Ukraine are full of civilians, the community’s safety is becoming our primary concern,” Oleksandr Feldman, a Ukrainian lawmaker and president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, wrote in statement published Wednesday by the Israeli Ma’ariv daily.
Feldman called the protests “a tour de force by various opposition parties, from liberals who support ties with the European Union, to the ultrantionalist and anti-Russian Svoboda party.” The involvement of Svoboda “and other elements with anti-Semitic tendencies may lead to a situation where the Jewish community is made into a scapegoat,” Feldman warned. “We are on high alert.”
Feldman added, “To a considerable degree, the Ukrainian Jewish community supports promoting a path toward merger into the European Union… but it is important to adopt a neutral and comprehensive position.”
Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU Ukrainians rallied in Kiev on Sunday for a new protest aimed at forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to resign after he sparked fury by rejecting an EU pact under Kremlin pressure.
Waving EU and Ukrainians flags as well as the red-and-black banners of the wartime anti-communist Ukrainian Insurgent Army, around 200,000 demonstrators filled Kiev's iconic Independence Square to bursting point.
Jailed Ukrainian ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko said the opposition was demanding the "immediate" resignation of Yanukovych, in a statement to the mass rally read by her daughter that was met by chants of "resign!" from the throng.
"Yanukovych took a decision to join the club of dictators," Yevgenia Tymoshenko quoted her mother as saying in a message from detention. "We must peacefully and legally oust him from power."
"He is no longer the president of our state, he is a tyrant who must answer for every drop of blood that has been shed," she added.
Some of the protesters wore helmets in an apparent attempt to protect themselves in the event of possible clashes with riot police as a priest read a prayer from stage.
Yanukovych's decision to drop political and free trade agreements with the EU in favor of tighter Russian ties and a crackdown on an opposition rally plunged the ex-Soviet nation into its worst political crisis in a decade.
The president incensed the opposition and its supporters further by discussing the signing of a strategic partnership treaty with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday.
Opposition leaders said Saturday that they would not sit down for talks with Yanukovych unless he dismissed the government, released arrested protesters and punished riot police officers for crushing an opposition rally last week.
"This is an ultimatum of the Ukrainian people and not just the opposition," said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.
The protests in Ukraine have raged for over two weeks after the government abruptly announced it was halting the work on the agreements with the European Union.
Last Sunday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Kiev and pro-EU western Ukraine in the largest demonstrations since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 forced the annulment of fraud-tainted elections initially claimed by Yanukovych.
The rally in Kiev descended into unprecedented clashes with riot police in which hundreds were injured.
Boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said a million should take to the streets of Kiev on Sunday.
"Our future depends on you," the pugilist said.
Yanukovych, who faces an election in 2015, has promised a thorough investigation into the use of force against the protesters but has not said whether he is ready to sit down for talks with the opposition.
In a sign of mounting pressure, he postponed a trip to Malta planned for next week.
Condemnation and support
Putin has slammed the protests, saying they looked more "like a pogrom than a revolution."
In contrast, the West has urged the Ukrainian authorities to heed the demands of the protest movement.
Protesters have seized control of Kiev's iconic Independence Square, setting up a tent city amid barricades and blockading several public buildings.
In a sign of further tensions, the authorities said Saturday they had deployed riot police outside the offices of the public broadcaster.
Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko, in a statement early Sunday, called on protesters to respect the law and said police were ready to cooperate.
Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, said during a visit to Kiev on Saturday that the bloc may introduce travel bans against those responsible for the use of violence against the protesters.
"Aggression should be punished," he told reporters. "If this does not happen, if they are not punished, then all those who are responsible for the work of law enforcement agencies in that situation will not have an opportunity to come to the EU."
Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who had hoped to walk out of prison as a result of the EU deal, has called on the West to impose sanctions against Yanukovych and his family including his son Olexander, one of the country's richest men.
Economists have said the protests risk exacerbating an already serious economic crisis and causing a crash in the value of its currency.
The Ukrainian government rejected the pact with the EU, citing Russian threats of sanctions and the EU's failure to deliver financial support.
Analysts believe Russia offered Ukraine cheaper natural gas and billions of dollars in aid in exchange for joining a Moscow-led customs union.
The Economist's senior editor Edward Lucas, citing sources, tweeted that during the Friday talks Yanukovych had promised Putin to join the customs union by 2015 in return for aid.
Both Ukrainian and Russian authorities said no deal was signed in Sochi.