Pressure mounts on Ukraine as EU halts work on historic pact

As hundreds of thousands rally in Kiev, opposition warns president over Russia trip

The European Union has suspended work on a historic agreement with Ukraine, ramping up pressure on

president Viktor Yanukovich, after more huge rallies demanding his resignation and warning him not to "sell out" the country when he visits Russia tomorrow.

Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters gathered this weekend in central Kiev, while tens of thousands joined nearby rallies organised by Mr Yanukovich’s Regions Party. As the events wound down last night, two days of tension in the capital were poised to end peacefully.

Opposition leaders continue to grow in confidence, with protest numbers holding steady, Mr Yanukovich apparently making some concessions, and the EU and US giving strong support to their cause and sending prominent figures to Kiev, with senator John McCain visiting this weekend.

Political pact


The protests started in late November, when Mr Yanukovich unexpectedly postponed a trade and political pact that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the

West, saying the government had realised after years of talks that the pact could ruin the country’s economy.

The opposition fears Mr Yanukovich plans to take Ukraine into a Russian-led union of ex-Soviet states, and protest leaders told him to "stay in Moscow and not come back" if he made such a deal tomorrow at the latest of several meetings with Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin. "The Kremlin wants to take its revenge on Ukraine, divide Ukraine and drown it in blood," said nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok. "We forbid this president to sign anything in Moscow that contradicts the interests of the Ukrainian state."

The EU said it was still happy to sign the association agreement with Kiev and discuss its implementation, but will not renegotiate its terms, as Brussels appeared to finally run out of patience with Ukrainian leaders who have sent wildly mixed signals on the issue. Stefan Fuele, the EU's enlargement commissioner, wrote on Twitter last night that work on the agreement was "on hold" because Kiev had given him no "clear commitment" to sign.

“Words and deeds of president and government regarding association agreement [are] further and further apart. Their arguments have no grounds in reality,” he added.

This came a day after prime minister Mykola Azarov derided the agreement at the pro-government rally, saying it would wreck Ukraine's industry and make millions unemployed, and that visa-free travel to the EU would only be offered to Ukraine when it legalised same-sex-marriage. EU officials said there was no link between visas and gay rights.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, said opposition parties would this week “do everything possible to dismiss the government, either through a no-confidence vote or by pressing Azarov to sign a letter of resignation.”

Protesters want the government to be removed because of its handling of the EU deal and in response to a brutal attack by riot police on student demonstrators a fortnight ago. Ukraine’s prosecutor-general has announced an investigation into the roles of Kiev’s mayor, the deputy head of the nation’s powerful security council, and Kiev’s ex-police chief and his deputy in the riot police attack on the students.

Mr Yanukovich also suspended the mayor and security council official, in what are seen as his first concessions towards the opposition. Protest leaders say the moves do not go far enough, however, and want action taken against interior minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko and security council chief Andriy Klyuyev, a shadowy oligarch who is seen as one of Mr Yanukovich's most influential allies.

High spirits

Protesters on Independence Square, who resisted a raid by thousands of riot police

last Wednesday, were in high spirits over the weekend, with hundreds of thousands watching a concert by one of Ukraine’s most popular bands on Saturday night. Mr McCain spoke from the same stage yesterday, telling the crowd that “America stands with you” and supports Ukraine’s “right to decide its destiny freely and independently”.

Russian and Western diplomats accuse each other of meddling in Kiev’s affairs. At the pro-government rally, some people said their bosses had ordered them to attend, or that their local Regions Party had paid them the equivalent of €10-€20 and organised buses and trains to bring them to Kiev. Many insisted, nonetheless, that they supported Mr Yanukovich.

“The protesters are a disgrace, causing chaos in the middle of the capital. Those people should get back to work,” said Nikolai, a teacher from the city of Zaporizhiya.

“We are not ready for this deal with the EU,” added his colleague, Lilyana. “Our leaders should discuss our problems, sort them out and move towards the EU more steadily, step by step.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe