Thousands of protesters poured into Kiev’s Independence Square, the center of Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution, on Friday to demand that the government reverse course and sign a landmark agreement with the EU — a day after leaders stunned the nation by saying they were pulling out of the deal.
Braving a freezing rain, up to 3,000 people voiced their desire to move back toward the West and away from the Moscow-aligned course on which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was taking the country.
It was the same day that Ukraine marked the anniversary of the Orange Revolution that overturned a fraudulent presidential election result and brought a Western-leaning government to power.
Similar rallies were also held in other cities across Ukraine, and a much bigger demonstration was planned in Kiev for yesterday.
The weekend rally will test the strength of the opposition, and some say that a large showing may nudge Yanukovych back in the direction of the EU.
“We must press these leaders to the end so that the agreement is signed next week,” opposition leader and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said. “We must force them to fulfill what they have promised.”
One key EU demand in the free-trade and political cooperation deal is the freeing of former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — the heroine of the Orange Revolution and Yanukovych’s arch-enemy. Tymoshenko said on Friday she was ready to urge the EU to drop demands for her release if that would persuade Yanukoyvch to sign the agreement. There was no immediate reaction from the EU.
Tymoshenko, whose incarceration the West calls politically motivated, also urged Ukrainians to take to the streets to protest the government’s decision.
“She is calling on everybody to come out and express your civic position on the squares of all the cities of the country,” Tymoshenko’s lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko said on Friday.
An EU spokeswoman said Yanukovych is still welcome to attend a scheduled summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, during which the two sides had been intending to sign the agreement.
“Our firm belief is that the future of Ukraine still lies in a strong relationship with the EU,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton.
Ukraine’s decision to suspend preparations for the agreement was a big victory for Russia, which has worked aggressively to derail the deal and keep Ukraine in its orbit.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov sought to defend the decision in parliament on Friday, but was booed by opposition lawmakers, who chanted: “Shame!” and threw stacks of papers at his ministers.
Azarov said Ukraine cannot afford to lose trade with Russia and suggested the EU did not offer Ukraine any compensation. He also complained that the conditions the IMF has set for rescuing Ukraine’s struggling economy with a bailout loan were impossible to fulfill.
“I see absolutely no tragedy if we return to this issue six months from now,” Azarov was quoted as saying on Friday night by the Interfax news agency.
Ukraine’s trade is split more or less equally between Russia and the EU: In the first nine months of this year exports to the EU stood at US$14.6 billion versus US$21.1 billion to Russia, while imports totaled US$22.4 billion from the EU versus US$21.2 billion from Russia, according to Concorde Capital, an investment firm in Kiev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg on Friday, denied twisting Ukraine’s arm, and, in turn, accused the EU of using “pressure and blackmail” against Ukraine.
“It will become clear in the next few days whether Ukraine and its leadership will yield to pressure or will be able to resist it and take a pragmatic stance in line with national interests,” Putin said.
In Washington, the US State Department said that US Secretary of State John Kerry would not travel to a meeting next month of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Ukraine, blaming scheduling issues.
The White House said US Vice President Biden called Yanukovych on Friday and said he is disappointed over Ukraine’s decision and that the US strongly believes that integrating with Europe will help Ukraine increase its democracy and restore economic prosperity.