Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovich has defended his decision not to sign an agreement this week with the European Union, as jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko began a hunger strike in protest at the move.
Barring a dramatic about- face, Ukraine will not seal landmark political and economic pacts with the EU at a summit starting tomorrow, a week after Mr Yanukovich’s government stunned Brussels by pulling out of the deals so as to repair relations with Russia, its biggest trading partner.
Moscow exerted huge pressure on Kiev to reject the EU agreements, threatening retaliatory measures that could have caused huge damage to cash-strapped Ukraine. Russia says the EU-Ukraine deal posed a threat to its own economy.
Ukrainian officials say the country has already lost billions of euro due to a sharp fall in trade with Russia, and that Brussels did not offer enough financial compensation for further losses, or help Kiev secure a loan with acceptable terms from the International Monetary Fund.
Address to the nation
Mr Yanukovich said in a television address that he was obliged to "to prevent people from losing their jobs, to ensure they receive their wages, pensions and stipends".
“I want there to be peace and calm in our big Ukrainian family. Like a father cannot leave his family without bread, so I do not have the right to leave people at the mercy of fate, facing the problems that could arise if, under the pressure we are feeling, production stopped and millions of citizens were cast out into the street . . . So I had to make a difficult decision.”
Mr Yanukovich said Ukraine would remain on its “European path”, but he had to pause the integration process so as to “take care of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, who may have to carry the main burden of the transition period.”
More than 100,000 people rallied in towns and cities across Ukraine last weekend to protest against Mr Yanukovich’s decision, and smaller protests are continuing in many parts of the country; several thousand students left classes to join an anti-government demonstration in Kiev yesterday. Opposition figures believe Mr Yanukovich is not protecting Ukraine’s poor but his own political future and the interests of tycoons who back him, most of whom are from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Critics say he is a Soviet-style leader with no interest in making Ukraine more democratic or transparent, and who is unwilling to meet a key EU demand to release Ms Tymoshenko, his fiercest rival, who has vowed to oust him and investigate his allegedly corrupt rule.
She was jailed for seven years in 2011, in what the EU and United States call a politically motivated case.
“Yanukovich sees himself as a tsar,” said Ms Tymoshenko’s lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko. “He is building an authoritarian regime under the cover of supposed support for European values and Ukraine’s European perspective.”
Ms Tymoshenko has gone on hunger strike to demand that Mr Yanukovich sign the EU deals. If he does not sign, protesters should “use peaceful and constitutional means to wipe him from the face of Ukraine” she said.
The agreements would have drawn Ukraine away from Russia and aligned its future with the EU, a move that is supported by most of Ukraine's 46 million people, according to surveys. Instead, however, prime minister Mykola Azarov said Ukraine would start talks with Russia next month "on a 'road map' to restore relations".
Mr Yanukovich is expected to attend the EU summit in Lithuania, which holds the rotating EU presidency.