Thousands of Ukrainians marched through the capital on Sunday demanding that President Leonid Kuchma quit over allegations that he plotted the disappearance of a journalist, the country's biggest scandal in a decade.
Some 5,000 people, many bearing banners with "Kuchma Kaputt!" and "Ukraine is a police state", joined the afternoon march to a rally and candlelit vigil in the centre of Kiev.
"Kuchma, today you'll see thousands on this street. Tomorrow, it will be millions," one speaker thundered to loud applause and shouts of "Kuchma out, Kuchma out!".
Police, who kept a low profile, said the march had passed off peacefully. The demonstrators dispersed in the evening.
The protest, the second such show of people power in a week, came as Kuchma flew to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Dnipropetrovsk, 350 km (200 miles) southeast of Kiev.
They expected to focus on industrial cooperation and energy issues - Ukraine owes more than $1.4 billion in unpaid gas bills to Moscow - during talks on Monday.
Putin was originally scheduled to meet Kuchma on Sunday evening but Ukrainian officials said he had been delayed in leaving Austria after a three-day visit there.
Kuchma is under pressure from the "Ukraine without Kuchma" movement, which has mobilised opposition parties, rights groups and individuals. It says Kuchma was involved in the disappearance last year of Georgiy Gongadze, an Internet journalist critical of the president.
KUCHMA DENIES INVOLVEMENT
Friends say a decapitated corpse found in November is Gongadze's and parliament has heard tapes of a voice similar to Kuchma's saying he wanted to be rid of the reporter. Kuchma has denied any involvement.
The case has scandalised Ukraine and alarmed foreign governments and investors, many of whom are increasingly wary of pumping money into the impoverished former Soviet republic until the political situation stabilises.
Members of a European trade delegation to Ukraine told Reuters this week that several major multinationals had put investment and recruitment plans on hold to await Kuchma's fate. Some were pulling expatriate staff out of the capital.
News that the International Monetary Fund, aggrieved at the slow pace of economic reform, had refused to grant a $190 million loan has also unnerved investors. Many see the IMF's blessing as a prerequisite for their involvement.
Despite those pressures, political analysts in Kiev say they are sceptical that Kuchma, re-elected for a five-year term in 1999, will be toppled soon or that Ukraine faces collapse.
The nation's buffer location between central Europe and Russia means Kuchma must tread a delicate line - Ukraine's 50 million people depend heavily on Russian gas supplies - but can also exploit either side's fears to secure vital aid.
On Sunday, Putin said Russia would maintain relations with Kuchma despite the upheaval.
"Regardless of the complex political situation, we will work with the president elected legally by the Ukrainian people, Leonid Kuchma," Putin told reporters in Austria.
NO ONE WANTS TROUBLE
Diplomatic sources said Kuchma may weather the storm.
"If Kuchma does enough to appease the opposition and West on reform and rights, he may survive," said one Kiev diplomat.
"But if he doesn't, Ukraine will. It might be a basket case, but it is just too big to ignore. Neither Russia nor the European Union want trouble on their doorstep. And we think political transition would be peaceful," he said.
Kuchma has already moved towards appeasing opposition parties, meeting one key demand by firing the head of the SBU security service, Ukraine's successor to the former Soviet KGB.
The president's office gave no reason for the surprise sacking on Saturday of Leonid Derkach.
Opposition politicians say the disputed audio tapes linked to the Gongadze scandal show Kuchma ordering Derkach, among other officials, to "deal with" the journalist. Kuchma says the tapes have been edited to put words into his mouth.