Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left behind massive anti-government rallies yesterday to hold a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that protesters fear will lead to a pro-Moscow deal, ruining their EU integration dreams.
The high-stakes Kremlin meeting comes two days after the EU suspended partnership talks with Ukraine for a pact that had been aimed at pulling the former Soviet country out of Russia’s orbit for the first time.
Brussels officials cited Yanukovych’s continued courtship of Russia for their decision, and demanded a firmer commitment to EU standards on political freedoms and economic reforms.
“If there’s a clear message from Kiev, we are ready to sign [a partnership deal] tomorrow,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Monday.
However, the Ukrainian president will instead be hoping to obtain a multibillion-dollar loan from Russia that his critics view as Putin’s reward for Kiev’s U-turn on the EU pact.
“I have the feeling Yanukovych does not hear the people, and does not hear the European Union and all the attention the European Union pays us,” 32-year-old builder Bogdan Baran said as he braved freezing temperatures along with thousands of other protesters in Kiev’s iconic Independence Square.
Yanukovych’s abrupt decision last month to spurn the EU Association Agreement with Brussels sparked the fiercest anti-government rallies since the 2004 Orange Revolution that first nudged Ukraine on a westward path, but it has also exposed the ancient cultural fault lines that run in the nation between the nationalist and Ukrainian-speaking west of the country and the more Russian-aligned east.
The government has attempted to organize counter-rallies in Kiev by busing in thousands of people from eastern regions where Yanukovych enjoys broader support, but those demonstrations have been dwarfed by the pro-EU protest.
Events in recent days suggest Yanukovych is cracking under the pressure and looking for a way out of the deepest political crisis of his nearly four-year rule.
He held an inconclusive meeting with three top protest leaders on Friday and followed that up by sacking senior officials, who he held responsible for a violent crackdown on protesters at the end of last month.
His own ruling Regions Party on Monday also encouraged Yanukovych to conduct a major government overhaul that could possibly take some steam out of the protest movement.
However, the Ukrainian president has firmly rejected the opposition’s main demand that Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resign immediately so that fresh presidential and parliamentary polls can be held.
Yanukovych hopes to sign a series of deals with Putin that include an agreement for cheaper Russian natural gas shipments and a multibillion-dollar loan aimed at righting Ukraine’s wobbly economy, but demonstrators fear that Yanukovych will in fact be putting Ukraine on a path toward future membership in a Russian-led customs union.
Nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said his Svoboda (Freedom) party had learned that Putin plans to reward Yanukovych for delaying the EU deal with a US$5 billion loan.
He said Russia would also lower the gas price it charges the Ukrainian state gas company to between US$200 and US$300 per thousand cubic meters from more than US$400.
“That is the baggage Yanukovych is taking with him to Moscow,” Tyagnibok told reporters.