Faced with tens of thousands of protesters in the streets and growing economic woes, Ukraine’s President appeared to be nearing a U-turn over his country’s future, telling the European Union’s most-senior diplomat that he would sign a pact on closer integration with the bloc.
Viktor Yanukovych did not, however, give any timescale for putting pen to paper on the association agreement, leading to concerns that he might once again be trying to play the EU and Russia against one another in the hopes of securing a better financial deal.
Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had travelled to Kiev to try to forge a diplomatic solution to the three-week long crisis, which erupted when Mr Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of a deal promising closer trade and political ties with the EU. Instead, he said he would pursue links with Moscow, angering many Ukrainians who envisage a more prosperous future with the EU.
“Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” the baroness told reporters as she arrived back in Brussels. She also stressed the long-term economic benefits of the agreement, which was meant to be signed at an EU summit in Lithuania at the end of last month. The deal “will help to bring in the kind of investment that [Yanukovych] needs”, she said.
A delegation from the Ukraine was in the Belgian capital for further talks. But in a sign that the tug-of-war between the EU and Russia over the strategically-placed nation of 46 million people was as fierce as ever, the Russian President Vladimir Putin countered by praising the benefits of the Moscow-led free trade area.
“Our integration project is based on equal rights and real economic interests,” Mr Putin said in his state-of-the-union address. “I’m sure achieving Eurasian integration will only increase interest from our other neighbours, including from our Ukrainian partners.”
While the thousands of people packing the squares of Kiev wave EU flags, in the east of the former Soviet nation there is significant support for maintaining close ties with Russia. Negotiations now will focus on whether the EU can come up with a more attractive proposal to help Ukraine’s floundering economy, amid concerns that it will be unable to pay upcoming debts without assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
“The financial pressures on Yanukovych are increasing by the day,” an EU official told The Independent. While the fundamental pre-conditions of the association agreement could not be re-negotiated, the official noted that “where we can be helpful is trying to help with the IMF.”
One issue which remains a sticking point is the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former Prime Minister and bitter rival of Mr Yanukovych. The EU had said Ukraine must address “selective justice” as a condition to signing the agreement. This was read by many to refer to Ms Tymoshenko’s incarceration.
In central Kiev, protesters began rebuilding their camps, after they were dismantled during clashes. At Independence Square there was scepticism that Mr Yanukovych would keep his word, and a determination to continue with the nation’s biggest protests since the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution.
Zoryan, a 31-year-old charity worker, said: “For me it looks again as if he is saying one thing to the West, one thing to his own people, and another thing to Russia.”