By Natalia Zinets and Richard Balmforth
Ukraine said on Tuesday it would not let itself become an East-West ‘battleground’ and its president declared he would attend an EU summit to explain why Kiev had turned down a landmark trade deal in favour of closer cooperation with Moscow.
President Viktor Yanukovich’s government announced last week it had dropped plans to sign a free trade pact with the European Union at Friday’s Vilnius summit, stunning EU leaders and igniting pro-Europe rallies in the former Soviet republic.
“We absolutely do not want to be a battleground between the EU and Russia, a field of confrontation,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said. “We want to have good relations with both the EU and Russia.”
Yanukovich, who speaks of a “pause” in Kiev’s move towards the West, said he would explain Kiev’s action to the EU.
“Today my plans have not changed. I have repeatedly said that I am planning to go to Vilnius,” he was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying.
The Vilnius agreement would have marked a definitive turn towards the West for Kiev and away from Moscow, which sees Ukraine as a sphere of its economic and political influence.
Azarov said Thursday’s decision to suspend the signing with the EU and revive economic dialogue with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet master and biggest single trading partner, had been taken out of economic necessity.
Ukraine is heavily indebted and strongly reliant on Russian gas, for which it says it is paying unreasonably high prices.
Given the outcry over Ukraine’s about-turn after years of negotiations with the EU, Azarov’s words set the scene for a possibly strained encounter – in all likelihood at a dinner in Vilnius on Thursday night – between Yanukovich and the club of 28 EU leaders.
He himself, in the comments reported by Interfax, did not say how long he would stay at the Nov. 28-29 summit.
The opposition accuses the government of cynically using months of negotiations with the EU as a bargaining chip in dealings with Russia to reach a deal for cheaper gas and loans from Moscow. Putin aims to draw Ukraine into a Russian-backed customs union with eastern, former Soviet neighbours.
Small street demonstrations, involving a few hundred people and including a students’ march, continued in the capital Kiev on Tuesday but opposition leaders issued calls for people to turn out after work in the evening and the numbers were expected to swell as they did on Monday.
“We are different but we are united because we are have only one aim – President Yanukovich must sign the Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit,” a statement by the three main opposition leaders said.
“We call on Kiev people and … like-minded people in other towns to go out on to the streets of their towns,” they said.
The three opposition leaders – boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahniboh – say they intend also to go to Vilnius.
“We’ve been hearing about the European Union for years now, that’s all I can remember them talking about… If he doesn’t sign it, there will be a storm of protests,” Taras Zagorbenskyy, a student from Lviv, said.
The demonstrations in Kiev have evoked memories of the 2004-5 Orange Revolution protests against sleaze and electoral fraud which brought hundreds of thousands out on to the streets and doomed Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency.
These were co-led then by the now jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, a fierce opponent of Yanukovich whose release the EU was trying to agree as part of the run-up to Vilnius.
Student bodies have also called for a strike on Wednesday in educational institutions.
There have been isolated clashes involving small groups of protesters and riot police, but the demonstrations have been otherwise peaceful.
Tymoshenko, who turns 53 on Wednesday, served twice as prime minister under her former ‘orange’ ally Viktor Yushchenko and was only narrowly beaten by Yanukovich for the presidency in early 2010 after he made a political comeback.
She was jailed the following year for seven years for abuse of office after a trial which Western governments said was political and on Monday announced she was launching a hunger strike in the hospital where she is held under prison guard.
Yanukovich might face rough questioning about Tymoshenko’s fate from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Germany was to have accepted Tymoshenko for treatment for chronic back trouble under a compromise deal envisaged by the EU but which has now died along with the planned signing.
Referring to the East-West tug-of-war around Ukraine, he said: “Some EU members, regretfully, have been led by the principle of tearing Ukraine away from Russia, drawing us to themselves … From the other side, we were also offended by the position of Russia which was directed at not allowing Ukraine to grow closer to the EU.”
Russia and the EU have accused each other of putting pressure on Ukraine – Russia by threatening trade retaliation and the EU pressing too strongly for internal reforms.
Putin, speaking at a news conference after talks with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, said Russia had not discussed revising state-controlled Gazprom’s costly gas supply contract with Ukraine in an attempt to persuade Kiev not to sign the trade pact with the EU.
“Gazprom and (Ukraine’s Naftogaz) have a contract that I believe is signed until 2019 and we did not discuss revising the contract,” Putin said.
Azarov says the International Monetary Fund’s refusal to soften its terms for fresh financial assistance was ‘the last straw’ which led to the government retreating from Vilnius.