Protests in Kyiv continued yesterday (25 November) putting pressure on the country’s President Viktor Yanukovich to sign a landmark EU-Ukraine association agreement at the Vilnius summit on Friday.
In a statement, Yanukovich said he did not want his decision to put the country’s association on hold to be misunderstood, promising to give an interview to provide answers to all questions.
Protests continue unabated in Kyiv with more demonstrations expected today at Maidan square in the heart of Ukraine’s capital.
In a series of incidents over the night, police clashed with protesters, who denounced the government’s U-turn in the country's European policy. Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year jail sentence, which the EU sees as politically motivated, began a hunger strike.
"As a sign of unity with you, I declare an unlimited hunger strike with the demand to Yanukovich to sign the association agreement," Tymoshenko declared.
Yesterday, Ukrainian opposition leaders were denied access to Tymoshenko's hospital room, where she is kept under guard and told that the area was quarantined.
Last week Tymoshenko said in an open letter that she was ready to ask the EU to drop its demand to release her from prison if Yanukovych signed the deal.
Yanukovich, who still plans to attend the Vilnius summit, issued a statement in an effort to defuse the tensions.
"Like a father cannot leave his family without bread, I have no right to leave people to the mercy of fate with the problems that may arise if production stops under the pressure we feel and millions of citizens are thrown out to the streets," he said, as quoted by the Voice of Russia.
Noting that in that situation, he has to "resort to complex solutions," Yanukovych said he would "never take a single step to the detriment of Ukraine and the people."
Yanukovich said the decision the government took to put the EU accession on hold was “not easy”, and that he was aware he would be misunderstood.
By saying that of the many challenges ahead, the most difficult were the economic ones, the president appeared to hint that the country’s priority was to get money to avoid a default. Reportedly, Russia has made a generous offer to Ukraine.
Hinting at the possible result of Russian economic pressure, Yanukovich said that he could not allow production to halt and millions of Ukrainians to lose their income.
Yanukovich repeated that there was “no alternative” to building European standards in Ukraine, and that he would not make any step against the will of Ukraine and Ukrainian people.
Oligarch Akhmetov comes to play?
The Segodnia newspaper meanwhile published a scoop which appears to indicate that Ukraine is bargaining to obtain a better deal from the EU and may still sign the AA in Vilnius, if its conditions are met.
Accordingly, the Ukrainian conditions to the EU for signing AA are reduced to two things.
First, the EU should help in the IMF’s allocation of a stabilization loan for Ukraine amounting to €10 billion, without the requirement of increasing the gas tariffs for the population.
Second, the provisions imposing restrictions on the metallurgical enterprises’ products’ access to the European market should be withdrawn from the DCFTA agreement.
The vice-president of the Gorstein Institute Oleksiy Leschenko told EurActiv that the publication in the Segodnia newspaper - which is related to metallurgy oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, may be the evidence that he has become a key player in Ukraine’s politics.
“Many experts consider Rinat Akhmetov to be one of the few people whose opinion is valued by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. This information deserves a particular interest […] because it may become a formula for a real compromise,” Leschenko said.
He continued: “Also, according to our sources, working groups have been established in the administration to prepare for the provision of a full-fledged presidential visit to the Summit in Vilnius. Taking into account the today’s statement of the three European leaders, there is still likelihood that the Agreement will be signed in Vilnius.”
In an interview for Reuters, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who will host the Vilnius summit in her capacity of head of state of the country holding the EU rotating presidency, called the Ukraine walkout from the EU trade pact a “Pyrrhic victory” for Russia. She also hinted that Yanukovich is not really welcome in Vilnius.
"This will be an expensive present for Russia, a country which also has economic hardship... I don't think this will be a joyous present," Grybauskaitė added, alluding to Ukraine's heavy debt load and other economic woes.
Grybauskaitė slammed Yanukovich, who is expected to attend the Vilnius summit.
"I don't think that the Ukrainian government has made a choice between the East and the West. I think they are behaving like in a bazaar," Grybauskaitė said.
"They are checking who will give them the most. And that is neither appealing nor acceptable politically."
Lithuania is also a former Soviet republic and had made the free trade pact with Ukraine a focus of its six-month stint as EU president. It too has recently suffered from Russian action on the trade front, with Moscow's halting of its dairy exports.
"Our [Lithuanian] experience is to never give up to any pressures. And that is my advice to the Ukrainian government," Grybauskaitė said.
- 28-29 Nov.: Vilnius summit of the Eastern Partnership