Ukraine still wants historic pact with EU
KIEV — Ukraine said yesterday it still wanted to reach a historic deal on closer ties with the European Union, as mass protests over a move to scrap the pact went into a fourth day.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s announcement failed to appease protesters who blockaded the government building during yesterday’s cabinet session demanding Kiev sign the political and free trade deal at a two-day summit in Vilnius that begins today.
Last week the government suspended talks on the accord, seen as a key step toward Ukraine’s EU membership, sparking the largest rallies since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
Brussels has accused Moscow of pressuring its neighbour, which is heavily dependent on Russia’s natural gas, to walk away from the deal.
Azarov told a government meeting that Ukraine fully intended to forge closer relations with the EU.
“I affirm with full authority that the negotiating process over the Association Agreement is continuing, and the work on moving our country closer to European standards is not stopping for a single day,” he said.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who is planning to attend the summit, said in a televised interview on Tuesday that his government wanted better terms from the EU.
Kiev has complained that the EU was offering insufficient compensation for the damages it would suffer by diluting its tight economic ties with Russia.
“As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will be talking about signing,” Yanukovych said on Tuesday.
Yesterday, summit host and current EU chair Lithuania reiterated that the bloc was ready to sign the deal. “If Ukraine says ‘yes, we want this,’ we will meet to discuss what to do. We are ready to hold the necessary meetings in Vilnius,” Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters in Lithuania.
Led by opposition leaders, nearly a thousand protesters rallied outside the government building for a fourth day yesterday under a heavy police presence.
“These authorities have to step down,” world boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said to loud cries of “Shame!” Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who is on hunger strike in solidarity with the protesters, called on them to close ranks across party divides.
“Everything that stands in the way of our absolute unity, should be immediately taken down,” she was quoted as saying by her daughter Yevgenia late on Tuesday.
Following the appeal of the fiery former prime minister, demonstrators removed their tents from central Kiev’s European Square and joined civil society activists on neighbouring Independence Square, the symbol of the Orange Revolution.
A hardcore group of protesters were keeping warm around makeshift fires in metal barrels, and more demonstrators were expected yesterday evening.
Around 15,000 rallied yesterday in the western city of Lviv, and several thousand in the nearby city of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Yanukovych has called for calm after the protests turned violent, with riot police firing tear gas and protesters hurling traffic cones and rocks at the security forces.
The debate over Ukraine’s future has turned into a heated diplomatic tussle between EU leaders and Putin’s Kremlin.
Ukraine’s historic master Russia wants it to join a Moscow-led Customs Union that President Vladimir Putin sees as a future alternative to the European Union and already includes the ex-Soviet states of Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Poland’s President Bronislaw Komorowski said yesterday that the West cannot tolerate Russian “blackmail” against Ukraine.
Top EU officials have said they “strongly disapprove” of Russian pressure on Kiev. Putin responded on Tuesday by advising “our friends in Brussels, my personal good friends in the European Commission, to hold back on the sharp words.”
Some 7,000 gathered in Kiev and over 20,000 protested in the western city of Lviv on Tuesday.
Ukraine’s decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko, a top EU condition for the deal.