Ukraine says it will sign association agreement with European Union soon
Regions Party plans huge rally at weekend to support Yanukovich and government
A man in a Guy Fawkes mask attends a rally held by the pro-government Party of Regions in support of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Thursday in Kiev, Ukraine. Photograph: Getty
The European Union and Ukraine have said they still intend to seal a major political and economic agreement, amid growing division in the country over protests sparked by president Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the historic pact.
Critics of Mr Yanukovich from across Ukraine are continuing to expand and reinforce their protest camp on Kiev’s Independence Square, after the failure of thousands of riot police to disperse them early on Wednesday morning only emboldened the pro-EU opposition movement.
However, opposition leaders and activists are warning of a potentially explosive situation in Kiev at the weekend, when the ruling Regions Party plans a huge rally of its own to support Mr Yanukovich and his government and denounce the occupiers of Independence Square.
After talks with EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele in Brussels yesterday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Sergei Arbuzov said Kiev “will soon sign this association agreement with the European Union, taking into account the national strategic interests”.
Mr Fuele said Brussels and Kiev would create a “road map” for implementation of the agreement, “help and support Ukraine to create conditions required for reaching an agreement with the IMF”, and examine all the implications of the association agreement and free trade deal.
When he unexpectedly postponed the signing of the pact late last month, Mr Yanukovich said Russia’s threatened trade retaliation would do too much damage to Ukraine’s struggling economy in the absence of major, immediate financial assistance from the EU and IMF.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said yesterday after a visit to Ukraine that Mr Yanukovich “made it clear” he wants to sign the deal. Mr Yanukovich has met Russian president Vladimir Putin four times in recent weeks for secretive talks. Details of what was discussed have not been revealed, but Moscow is believed to be offering Kiev cheap loans and a big discount on gas, with few strings attached.
Ukraine’s protesters fear he intends to turn his back on the EU and take the country into a Russian-led customs union also comprising Belarus and Kazakhstan. Activists are calling for a huge anti-government protest on Independence Square on Sunday, to warn Mr Yanukovich not to sign such a deal when he meets Mr Putin again next Tuesday. On the last two Sundays, hundreds of thousands of people have massed on the square. Pro-government forces are also mobilising in support of the authorities, however. Opposition groups say local councils in eastern and southern Ukraine, where support for Mr Yanukovich and for Russia is strongest, are using state funds to pay people to come to Kiev on Sunday.
Vadim Kolesnichenko, a Regions Party deputy in Crimea, said hundreds of people across the autonomous region were joining “self-defence units” to “defend the constitution” and prevent “a coup”. They would travel to Kiev at the weekend, he added.
Sergei Kravchenko, mayor of the eastern industrial city of Lugansk, said opposition protests calling for the “legally elected authorities to be overthrown . . . are threatening the stability, development and integrity of our state”.
“But today we won’t be silent any more . . We invite people to go to Kiev at the weekend, to express their support for the existing legal authorities.”
Cities in western Ukraine – where Mr Yanukovich and Russia are widely hated – have also formed their own self-defence groups and sent many people to Kiev to protest.
The camp on Independence Square is continuing to grow, with supporters arriving from around the country and erecting tents and helping rebuild barricades demolished by riot police on Wednesday.