KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands protested in the Ukrainian capital Friday, demanding the president's resignation after he shelved a landmark agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.
Many protesters holding Ukrainian and EU flags tore pictures of President Viktor Yanukovych, who ditched the free trade pact with the EU at Friday's summit in Vilnius.
Yanukovych abruptly changed the course for integration with the EU last week when his government announced it was suspending preparations for signing the agreement. The move angered many in the Ukraine, where nearly half of the population favors closer ties with the EU.
Yanukovych argued that Ukraine can't afford to sacrifice trade with Russia, which has tried to block the deal by banning some of Ukraine's imports and threatening more trade sanctions.
"Millions of Ukrainians don't want to return to the Soviet past ...," said Olga Shukshina, a 46-year-old doctor from the Western city of Lviv, near the border with Poland.
World boxing champion and opposition leader, Vitaly Klitshcko, and opposition politician, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, are flying back home to speak to protesters. Both attended the summit.
"The Ukrainians feel themselves Europeans, and Yanukovych can't block our move toward Europe. He can only slow it down," said another protester, 35-year-old Dmytro Dashchinsky.
The demonstrations in Kiev revived memories of the 2004 Orange Revolution which overturned Yanukovych's fraud-tainted victory and helped bring a pro-Western president to power.
But Yanukovych made a comeback amid economic problems, narrowly defeating Orange Revolution heroine, then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, in a 2010 presidential vote.
The next year, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges, which critics have called politically motivated.
The EU made the deal with Ukraine conditional on Tymoshenko's release, but Yanukovych — who is wary that she could challenge him in a 2015 vote — rejected the demand.
Tymoshenko, who has been in hospital with back problems for 1 ½ years, went on a hunger strike Monday to protest Yanukovych's decision to spike the EU deal.
On Friday, about 10,000 Yanukovych supporters rallied at another central square just a few hundred meters (yards) from the site of the protests to voice support of his move.
"We will go bankrupt without Russia and what shall we eat then? European slogans?" said 40-year-old Pyotr Novodkov.