Ukraine's opposition failed to force out the government with a parliamentary non-confidence vote Tuesday, leaving political tensions unresolved and a potential standoff between protesters and the country's leaders looming.
'We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force.' - Prime Minister Mykola Azarov
The opposition called for the vote in protest both of President Viktor Yanukovych's shelving of a long-anticipated agreement to deepen political and economic ties with the European Union and the violent tactics used by police to disperse demonstrators protesting that decision.
The dispute has brought crowds of up to 300,000 people to the streets of Kyiv, the largest outpouring of public anger since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
The non-confidence measure got the support of 186 members of the Verkhovna Rada, 40 shy of the majority needed. Even if it had passed, Yanukovych would have remained president, but the prime minister and cabinet would have been ejected.
Chants of 'shame'
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, attending the parliamentary session with his cabinet, apologized for the violence by riot police against protesters.
"Both the president and the government feel deeply sorry that it happened," Azarov told a rowdy parliament, to unceasing chants of "Shame" and "Resignation" from opposition lawmakers.
But Azarov defended the government's course, denouncing protesters who have blocked access to government offices and warning the opposition that authorities will be able to hold their ground.
"We are open for dialogue," Azarov said. "We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force."
In turn, Vitali Klitschko, the superheavyweight world boxing champion and leader of the opposition party Udar, vowed that the action would continue.
"We will peacefully blockade the government building and not allow them to work," he told demonstrators on Independence Square after the non-confidence motion failed.
During the vote, several thousand protesters rallied outside the parliament building, which was cordoned off by white police buses and riot police in full gear.
After the vote failed, the opposition urged Ukrainians to continue protests. About 5,000 demonstrators gathered outside Yanukvoych's office and demand that he sign a decree dismissing Azarov's Cabinet and call an early election.
"If he thinks he is going to evade responsibility, he is wrong," opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
The president's office, however, said he had left the country for a trip to China, where he is expected to sign an array of economic agreements.
Azarov, like Yanukovych, has said Ukraine wants further integration with the EU, but can't now bear the burden of the trade losses with Russia it would presumably suffer. Ukraine is also deeply dependent on natural gas from Russia, which previously has sharply raised prices for its neighbour.
Russia opposes closer Ukraine-EU relations, hoping to draw Ukraine into a trading bloc of several former Soviet republics.
Lawmakers in Poland, a country at the forefront of EU attempts to bring Ukraine into the 28-nation bloc's fold, adopted a resolution calling for dialogue between Ukraine's opposition and the government. It also condemned the use of force during protests and expressed solidarity with pro-European Ukrainians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says Europe and its allies want to avoid a "bidding war" over Ukraine's controversial choice to turn away from closer Western ties.
In Brussels for a meeting of foreign ministers from NATO member states, Kerry pointed to "unbelievable numbers" of demonstrators in Ukraine.
A NATO statement condemned use of excessive force on peaceful demonstrators and called on all sides to avoid "provocations and violence." Ukraine is a partner of the Atlantic alliance. Kerry said NATO has no role to play — and is not contemplating one.