Thousands of protesters poured into Kiev’s Independence Square last night, the centre of Ukraine’s pro-West Orange Revolution, to demand that the government reverse course and sign a landmark agreement with the European Union.
It came a day after leaders stunned the nation by saying they were pulling out of the deal.
Braving freezing rain, up to 3,000 people voiced their desire to move back towards the West and away from the Moscow-aligned course on which President Viktor Yanukovych was taking the country. It was the same day 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 is planned in Kiev tomorrow. The weekend rally will test the strength of the opposition, and some say that a large showing may nudge Mr Yanukovych back in the direction of the EU.
“We must press these leaders to the end so that the agreement is signed next week,” said world heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko. “We must force them to fulfil what they have promised.”
One key EU demand in the free trade and political co-operation deal is the freeing of prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the heroine of the Orange Revolution and Mr Yanukovych’s arch-enemy. Ms Tymoshenko said yesterday she was ready to urge the EU to drop demands for her release if that would persuade Mr Yanukoyvch to sign the agreement.
Ms Tymoshenko, whose incarceration the West calls politically motivated, also urged Ukrainians to take to the streets to protest at 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,” her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko said.
An EU spokeswoman said Ms Yanukovych was 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 Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat.
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.
Prime minister Mykola Azarov sought to defend the decision in parliament yesterday, but was booed by opposition MPs, who chanted “Shame!” and threw stacks of papers at his ministers.
Mr Azarov said Ukraine could not afford to lose trade with Russia and suggested the EU did not offer Ukraine any compensation. He also complained that the conditions the International Monetary Fund has set for rescuing Ukraine’s struggling economy with a bai-lout loan were impossible to fulfil.
“I see absolutely no tragedy if we return to this issue six months from now,” Mr Azarov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Ukraine’s trade is split more or less equally between Russian in the EU. In the first nine months of this year exports to the EU stood at €10.8bn as opposed to €15.6bn to Russia, while imports totalled €16.5bn from the EU against. £15.6bn from Russia, according to Concorde Capital, an investment firm in Kiev.
Russian president Vladimir Putin yesterday denied twisting Ukraine’s arm, and accused the EU of using “pressure and blackmail”.
“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,” he said.
In the 2010 presidential election Mr Yanukovych narrowly defeated Ms Tymoshenko. The next year Ms Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges.
In Washington, the US State Department said secretary of state John Kerry would not travel to a December meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Ukraine, blaming scheduling issues.
The White House said vice president Joe Biden called Mr Yanukovych and said he was disappointed over Ukraine’s decision and that the US strongly believed that integrating with Europe would help Ukraine strengthen its democracy and restore economic prosperity.