Pro-Europe Ukrainians march as Kiev balances Moscow and Brussels (+video)
Days after Ukraine announced it was freezing its association agreement with the EU under pressure from Russia, tens of thousands took to the streets.
Large numbers of pro-European Union demonstrators rallied in downtown Kiev for a second day Monday. They clashed violently with police and vowed to remain on the streets at least until Nov 29, the last possible date for Ukraine to sign a now-aborted Association Agreement with the EU.
The protesters, who've been bused in from many other Ukrainian cities as well as Kiev, have been joined by several major opposition figures, including world championship boxer Vitaly Klitschko and the head of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko's movement, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
"People have come from all over Ukraine to protest the decision of the government to curtail the process of integration with Europe. There is a threat that Ukraine will not sign the association agreement, although we hope it's still possible," says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary deputy with Ms. Tymoshenko's bloc.
She says public opinion polls show a vast majority back the idea of joining the EU track, while the alternative of joining a Russian-led customs union enjoys much less popular support.
"We plan to continue until Friday [the day the EU agreement was to have been signed]. This is not just an action by the Ukrainian opposition. It has the support of ordinary people," Ms. Bodnar says.
Kiev police estimated Sunday's crowd at 50,000, but journalists on the scene said it was probably much larger. Monday's rally saw significantly smaller numbers.
But these are the biggest public protests since the Orange Revolution nine years ago, which knocked Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit and put it onto a fast track toward membership in NATO and the EU under a new pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.
Mr. Yushchenko's efforts became mired in corruption and political indecision. He left office amid political defeat, and Ukraine's other pro-Western champion, Tymoshenko, was narrowly topped in presidential polls by the more pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych almost four years ago.
Since then, Ukraine has gone some distance toward repairing ties with Russia, its biggest single trading partner and vital supplier of energy, but even Mr. Yanukovych has balked at joining Moscow's customs union project, which aims to transform itself into a full-fledged competitor to the EU called the Eurasian Economic Union by 2015.
Writing in the Financial Times Sunday, former President Yushchenko warned that Ukraine is in danger of being dragged into a neo-Soviet empire that would keep it permanently out of the European mainstream.
"Russia is, at the moment, looking to restore the Soviet model through innocuous-sounding projects such as the 'customs union' and the 'common economic space'. But these structures have nothing to do with economic integration and hardly qualify as partnerships.... They have only one aim: pass sovereignty to Russia and destroy competitive industries in the neighborhood," he wrote.
But despite all the headlines that suggest Ukraine's decision not to sign the EU agreement this week means that Russia has triumphed in the tug-of-war over its giant Slavic neighbor, experts say nothing is final.
"This is not a change of course on the part of Ukrainian authorities, it's just a pause [on the way to EU integration]," says Dmitry Vydrin, an independent Kiev-based political expert. "Many people understand it as a halt, or change of direction, and the opposition is taking advantage of this to improve its political prospects. But it's just wrong. The authorities will go on with the same course."
Ukraine's government, which is skating dangerously on the brink of bankruptcy, complained that the EU deal offered little in the way of immediate financial relief, while Russia was threatening to impose massive trade sanctions if Ukraine chose the Western path. The country's public debt is rated "junk," and it owes at least $1.3 billion to Russia's state monopoly Gazprom in unpaid gas bills.
The EU's insistence that Kiev release imprisoned opposition leader Tymoshenko as a condition of admittance to the EU zone was another serious sticking point, experts say.
"Yanukovych faces a re-election fight in 2015, and doesn't want to be humiliated by having to let Tymoshenko go, which is like saying the charges against her were false," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for "abuse of power" during a previous stint as prime minister. Ironically, her crime was to negotiate a gas supply deal with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that allegedly harmed Ukraine's interests.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told Russian media that the $1.4 billion in compensation being offered to Ukraine to help upgrade its industries to EU standards was nothing more than "helping a beggar." He also denied reports carried on Ukrainian TV that Russia had offered Kiev $20 billion if it declined to sign the EU accord.
But Mr. Azarov told journalists Sunday that since Ukraine declined to sign the EU deal, Moscow has indicated that it might take another look at Ukraine's gas contract with Gazprom, which Kiev says imposes unfair prices. "We have been persistently trying to persuade the Russian Federation to review the contract. Now, generally speaking, there is such a pledge," Azarov said.
In another interview Monday, Azarov suggested that Ukraine might be ready to sign the EU accord later, perhaps in as little as six months from now.
Experts say that Ukrainian authorities do not feel ready at this moment to join an EU free-trade zone, and just want more time to negotiate the terms.
Ukraine's indecision does not mean it's ready to sign up with the Russian-led customs union, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.
"I hope there is no one in Moscow who imagines that Ukraine chose Russia when it decided not to go ahead with the European option," he says.
"That didn't happen. What happened was that Ukraine, once again, kicked the can down the road, because any definitive choice at this moment would be destructive for Ukraine. They have postponed the European choice, but they'll probably continue to resist joining the Russian-led customs union."