Ukraine protesters denounce rejection of EU pact

Demonstrators, some waving Ukrainian and European Union flags, gather in Kiev's Independence Square to denounce President Viktor Yanukovich's rejection of an association agreement with the EU.
(Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s president faced growing street protests at home Friday after he rejected an agreement to tie his nation’s political and economic future to the West, instead keeping intact Ukraine’s historical links with Moscow.

The news that President Viktor Yanukovich came away from the European Union summit in Lithuania empty-handed angered thousands of mostly young demonstrators who gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square, site of massive protests that triggered the Orange Revolution against pro-Russian rule nearly a decade ago, to demand that the president be impeached and the association agreement with the EU be signed.

The conflict goes to the heart of deep divisions between the country’s mostly pro-European west and its eastern industrial regions tied to Russia, which still wields great influence over Ukraine more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Yanukovich suggested Friday that he would sign the association agreement, which would improve trade and other ties with the EU, if measures could be worked out to aid the Ukrainian economy’s “adjustment to new conditions.”

The president maintains that the EU was offering Ukraine about $830 million to shore up its economy as it adjusted to the standards demanded by the association and that the country needed about $220 billion.

“I am sure that as a result of this work the existing contradictions will be lifted that will allow us to sign the agreement and enable the strategic movement toward European integration without serious losses for the economy of Ukraine,” Yanukovich was quoted as saying on his official website.

Other participants in the EU summit suggested that Ukraine pulled back under strong pressure from Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, with whom Yanukovich recently had three meetings. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara “in our discussions confirms that Ukraine has succumbed to severe Russian economic pressure in postponing EU agreement,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on his Twitter account.

The EU on Friday announced new association agreements with two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova.

Brandishing yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags and the blue banner of the EU, protesters gathered Friday in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, carrying signs calling on Yanukovich to “Go to Siberia. We want to live in Europe!” They tore up and trampled leaflets with a drawing of Yanukovich’s face and the word “Sign!”

The president betrayed his people, said Natalia Pylypiv, a 20-year-old geology student from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, as thousands of demonstrators chanted, “Impeachment, impeachment!” around her in the square on the cold afternoon.

“I came to Kiev to help influence the signing of the agreement, but what I feel now is utter disappointment,” said Pylypiv, who had symbols of the European Union and Ukraine painted on her cheeks. “I can’t stand seeing Yanukovich tearing himself between Europe and Mr. Putin, and I hate to see Putin winning.”

Pylypiv said she and a friend hitchhiked to Kiev after police sought to prevent students in Ivano-Frankivsk from boarding buses bound for the capital, more than 300 miles away.

“We stood [at a pro-European integration rally] in Ivano-Frankivsk in cold and rain for three days before we came here,” Pylypiv said. “We will stay here to the end to make the authorities change their decision.”

Though Yanukovich told Ukrainian television that he had not “coordinated” with Russia on his decision, prominent lawmaker and billionaire chocolate maker Petro Poroshenko said it was clear that Moscow had put pressure on Ukraine before the negotiations in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

He said that as of summer, about 27,000 Ukrainians had been banned from entering Russia, the Russian energy giant Gazprom was threatening to impose sanctions over debts owed by Ukraine, and more than 600 of his nation’s enterprises were barred from doing business in Russia, including his own Roshen, a major producer of chocolates and other candies.

“If this is the price I personally have to pay for our integration in Europe, I don’t mind,” Poroshenko, a former minister of economics and of foreign affairs, said in an interview with The Times. “The agreement with the EU is the only chance for Ukraine to modernize its economy and conduct sweeping reforms, something Russia badly needs too. Russia continues to see its interests and influence in Ukraine in a quite distorted way.”

The refusal to sign the agreement reflected the ruling political elite’s unwillingness to make the sacrifices necessary to join Europe, said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev think tank.

“For the post-Soviet kleptocratic elite, the association with Western Europe means the inevitable change of political and economic regime in conditions of more democracy and a more competitive economy,” Karasyov said. “For Yanukovich and his allies, it is a sure way of self-extermination. This is why they choose sliding back to stagnation in Putin’s company.”

Ukraine is committed by a controversial agreement signed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution, to buy 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year from Russia at what critics saw as too high a price. Yanukovich narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, and the following year she was convicted of abuse of power for signing the agreement and sentenced to seven years in prison in a much-criticized case that further strained Ukraine’s negotiations with the EU.

One of the earlier EU conditions for signing the association agreement was the release of Tymoshenko to Germany for medical treatment, a move Yanukovich rejected as beyond his presidential powers. Tymoshenko remains in prison, where she declared a hunger strike this week.

As protesters massed in Independence Square on Friday, a pro-Yanukovich rally was held in European Square less than a mile away. Several thousand participants — predominantly middle-aged men and women, most of them municipal and industrial workers from eastern and central regions of the country — were brought to Kiev by busloads organized by local authorities, some of those gathered told The Times. Many of them were carrying blue flags of the ruling Party of Regions.

“I am glad the agreement was not signed because otherwise it would make many people lose their jobs in our area, where unemployment is already very high,” said Larisa Andriets, 52, a social worker from the central industrial city of Zhytomyr dressed in a blue Party of Regions jacket. “We must stay with Russia like back in the old days when everybody was happy.”

By nightfall the pro-government gathering had dissolved while the opposition rally in Independence Square had swelled in numbers.

Vitali Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion and Ukrainian opposition lawmaker who plans to challenge Yanukovich in the 2015 presidential election, flew back to Kiev from Lithuania and issued a statement accusing the president of “high treason.”

“Today they stole our hope,” Klitschko told the crowd in Independence Square. “We must demand the current leadership go. Only new leaders can sign the association.”

After Klitschko’s speech, the protesters chanted: “Revolution! Revolution!”

Special correspondent Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.