KIEV, Ukraine -- Protest crowds in central Kiev have thinned in recent days to their lowest numbers since anti-government rallies began six weeks ago as Ukrainians returned to work after the holidays, raising questions about the opposition’s future course.
Protesters have remained camped out in the capital even after President Viktor Yanukovich last month agreed a $20bn bailout from Russia, easing the state’s financial pressures and decisively shifting away from an integration agreement with the EU that demonstrators wanted him to sign.
At times over New Year and Orthodox Christmas the protest has taken on a party atmosphere, swelling again to hundreds of thousands.
Barricades still block traffic across Independence Square, known as the “Maidan”, and protesters occupy several public buildings, including part of Kiev’s city government.
But with only a few thousand people on or around the square on Thursday, the realisation has set in that Mr Yanukovich has ridden out the immediate storm without conceding to the opposition’s main demands: to rekindle the EU agreement, or sack his government and stand down.
That has left both sides with dilemmas, analysts say.
Protesters must decide whether to stage a prolonged stand-off, or withdraw and focus on the next scheduled opportunity to unseat Mr Yanukovich: presidential elections early in 2015.
Mr Yanukovich and his authorities face a choice between allowing protests to continue in the hope they will fizzle out, or crushing them, which would risk stirring up greater uprisings, as happened after two previous attempts to clear the square.
“After making their attacks and counter-attacks, both sides are now locked in a trench war-style stalemate,” said Brian Mefford, an American political consultant who has advised former president Viktor Yushchenko and other Ukrainian politicians.
It is not hard to find protesters saying they want to keep the demonstration alive.
“It’s been a fantastic feeling of solidarity celebrating Christmas here,” said Andriy, a 38-year-old Odessa resident camped out on the Maidan.
“I expect further mobilisation of people in coming weeks . . . there is no turning back.”
But tensions lurk between activists who launched the spontaneous rallies after Mr Yanukovich turned away from the EU agreement in November, and opposition party leaders, whom protesters cautiously embraced a few days later but who have never been fully in control of the rallies.
Those leaders, including heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko, and Arseny Yatseniuk from the party of jailed former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, have publicly called for continued protests and a nationwide strike this month.
They are anxious not to be seen to be betraying the protests by calling them off.
But many analysts suggest the party leaders would prefer to prepare for the presidential election, and for new protests to focus on any attempts to falsify its results.
“Opposition leaders did not expect this protest, [they were] planning instead big protest activities closer to the elections,” said Vadim Karasiov, a political analyst.
Party leaders say they will reveal more about their game plan in coming days.
Yet there are also rivalries between them and Oleh Tyahnybok, a nationalist leader whose party provided organisational muscle for the protests, who all intend to compete in the presidential poll.
These rivalries come amid a persistent government crackdown.
Analysts say the authorities may step up efforts in coming months to bar from the election Mr Klitschko and Mr Yatseniuk – who, opinion polls show, could both beat Mr Yanukovich.
The president’s party has passed a law blocking candidates with residency rights overseas, which could block Mr Klitschko from participating in next year’s poll.
Security services last month launched a criminal investigation into the party leaders for allegedly attempting to launch a coup.
Reports have mounted in recent days, some still unconfirmed, that police were selectively harassing protesters and some lower-level protest organisers, visiting their apartments, seizing driver’s licenses and handing down fines for various violations.
Against such a background, even some hardcore protesters want a united strategy capable of achieving near-term victories against Mr Yanukovich.
“The people are ready to continue standing and holding the barricades,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, leader of Spilna Sprava, a radical movement that has provided many protesters’ tents.
“But they want a clear plan to achieve clear results.”