US Senator John McCain signs a military helmet for a protester during a mass opposition rally at Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.
KIEV: Nearly 300,000 outraged Ukrainians braved freezing temperatures yesterday to demand closer Western integration after the European Union abruptly suspended historic partnership talks because of the government’s continued courtship of Russia.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since President Viktor Yanukovych’s shock decision last month to ditch a landmark EU association agreement and seek closer ties with its traditional masters at the Kremlin.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele announced in a surprise tweet at the start of yesterday’s rally that the bloc was halting all negotiations until it received “a clear commitment” from Yanukovych that Ukraine was serious about the deal.
“Ukraine: Words and deeds of President and government regarding #AssocAgreement further and further apart,” Fuele said. Yanukovych is due in Moscow tomorrow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that protesters occupying central Kiev’s iconic Independence Square fear could result in an even firmer alliance between the two neighbours.
Demonstrators have planned another huge rally to coincide with Yanukovych’s meeting with Putin on Tuesday evening. They were warmly reassured of continued US backing on Sunday by Republican Senator John McCain -- one of Washington’s staunchest critics of Kremlin rule.
“To all Ukraine, America stands with you,” McCain called out to a cheering sea of people who chanted “Thank you!” in English in return.
Protesters were eagerly awaiting McCain’s appearance on a makeshift Independence Square stage when news spread that Fuele had said Brussels was halting talks with Kiev after an inconclusive Friday meeting.
EU officials told Ukraine that further discussions required a “clear commitment (to) sign (but) Work on hold, had no answer,” Fuele said. Yanukovych upset Brussels on Friday by threatening to prosecute Ukrainian government officials who had worked out the current terms of the EU partnership deal.
The president then accused his negotiators of “violating the national interests” of Ukraine by putting the country’s wobbling economy under further threat.
“Need clarity from #Ukraine whose President said it hurts national interests,” Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius of EU chair Lithuania tweeted yesterday.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov last week requested a ¤20bn ($27.5bn) loan from the EU before it signs the closer trade and political association deal.
Ukraine says the money would compensate for the losses it would suffer from the trade sanctions threatened by Russia — an energy power that has promised cheaper gas shipments should Kiev join a customs union championed by Putin instead. AFP