Ukraine Getting Warmer
Ukrainian students shout slogans during a protest to support European Union integration at Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday. As leaders of the European Union gather for a summit to discuss the bloc’s eastern expansion, both EU and Ukrainian officials said Thursday that the suspension of talks on closer ties could still be revived after the two-day meeting.
Was it arm-twisting, back-stabbing, or a hard reality body-check?
As Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich arrived at a European Union summit in Vilnius Thursday to say “thanks but no thanks” to a long-sought EU association pact, analysts were puzzling over what actually happened here.
And as European officials struggled to reverse his decision, the question that hangs most heavily is whether the thousands-strong protests in Ukrainian cities against Yanukovich’s EU rejection would explode into another Orange Revolution.
“This is about values, not politics,” says Ukraine expert Marta Dyczok of University of Western Ontario. “Ukrainians can either join a group that is not in great shape just now but has promise for the future, or be dragged back into the past. The protesters are saying ‘we’re Europeans.’”
Ukraine has for months endured severe pressure from its heavy-handed former master Moscow, which is trying to wrestle it into a curiously-assorted Customs Union with Russia, along with near-bankrupt Belarus and oil-rich Kazakhstan.
Kyiv was also struggling with EU demands to improve its dismal human rights record and release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who went on hunger strike in jail to protest Yanukovich’s decision not to sign on to the trade and political pact, a first step to EU membership.
Tymoshenko herself has said Ukraine should sign the EU pact with no preconditions.
As the summit approached, Kyiv had few expectations of short-term relief from the West. The International Monetary Fund had imposed tough terms on a prospective $15 billion loan to patch over a deep economic crisis, and the EU was wrestling with its own debt problems.
Then last week Yanukovich surprised the international community — and embarrassed European negotiators — by announcing a sudden rejection of an EU deal many Ukrainians hoped would usher in a new era of prosperity and freedom from Russia.
The EU is now Ukraine’s biggest trading partner, buying about $20 billion in goods a year.
But Yanukovich’s decision may not be so far off the mark, at least in the short term, says David Marples of University of Alberta.
“It’s not as though Europe was offering all that much,” he said. “It’s a deep and comprehensive trade agreement, but it might be 10 years before the effects are felt.”
However on Thursday European officials hinted that cash might flow if Yanukovich were open to a change of plan. An EU special envoy told reporters it is “ready to talk seriously about economic aid to Ukraine.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds the most substantial purse strings, said that although the deal will not succeed during this meeting, “the door is open. We will make very clear that the EU is ready to take in Ukraine as an associated member.”
However Russia, which buys about $17 billion in Ukrainian goods a year, has a virtual monopoly on the energy flow to Kiev, and warned that moving closer to Europe could be “suicidal,” threatening to choke off natural gas supplies and escalate trade sanctions that could cripple Ukraine’s fragile economy.
Protesters who turn out daily in freezing weather in Kyiv and other cities see the up-side of the EU deal, regardless. The protests have prompted comparisons with Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, which forced Yanukovich out of power after allegations of election fraud.
“The people in the Maidan (Kyiv’s main square) are saying they’re tired of Ukraine’s political culture,” says Dyczok. “They’ve been brutalized by the police, abused by the system, and the people in power have been stealing from them. They believe that the EU is their only option to put on the brakes.”
But says Marples, a recent poll suggests that opinion in Ukraine is divided along a number of fault lines. “It suggests support for the EU and the Customs Union are about equal, with the younger people more likely to support the EU, and the older ones more committed to Russia and the union.”
The poll, by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology this month, shows that about 41 per cent of responders favoured the Customs Union, and 33 per cent opposed it. But about 40 per cent also said they would vote for joining the EU, with 35 per cent against it. Apart from the young, those in western and central Ukraine largely supported the EU.
The figures could give Yanukovich, whose popularity is waning, less anxiety about the voices in the streets. “Everything that Yanukovich does is guided by the presidential election in March 2015,” says the Economist, pointing out that turning away from Brussels and toward Moscow could also backfire.
Even an injection of Russian cash would not solve Ukraine’s serious economic problems, it said. “Economically and politically things are likely to get worse not better. But now, this will be blamed on Russia and Yanukovich.”
Ukraine protests: Opposition loses no-confidence motion
The Ukrainian parliament has rejected an attempt to force the resignation of the government.
The opposition tabled the motion of no-confidence, which was defeated, as thousands of demonstrators protested outside the parliament building.
Earlier, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov apologised in parliament for the use of police force against protesters.
Mass protests were sparked by the government’s decision not to sign an association deal with the EU last week.
The motion of no-confidence in Mr Azarov’s government was supported by 186 members of the main opposition parties, but fell short of the 226 votes required for approval.
Before parliament voted on the motion, Mr Azarov addressed an emergency session:
"On behalf of our government, I would like to apologise for the actions of our law enforcement authorities on Maidan [Independence Square]," he said, referring to violence at the weekend. "The president and the government deeply regret that this happened."
Speaking above boos by opposition deputies in parliament, the prime minister called for protests outside the government buildings in Kiev to end, and appealed for Ukrainians not to return to the unrest of the Orange Revolution of 2004.
"We reach out our hand to you. Push away the plotters, the plotters seeking power and who are trying to repeat the scenario of 2004," he said.
On Monday, Mr Azarov had said he saw “all the signs of a coup” as protests intensified.
He said the government was aware of plans to seize the parliament building.
Demonstrators are demanding the resignation of Mr Azarov and President Viktor Yanukovych, and have called for a general strike.
Mr Yanukovych - who has gone ahead with a planned visit to China - has warned that the rallies should only be peaceful after violence at the weekend.
The main opposition leaders have condemned the violence, saying it was the work of “provocateurs”.
The newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a series of videos and photographs which it says backs up the claims.
The images appear to show a group of young men wearing masks and helmets pushing against police lines in front of the presidential building. Soon afterwards several are seen beckoning to others in the crowd and then passing through the blockade, without resistance from officers.
At least one of the men is also pictured standing uninterrupted behind the riot police.
In another development, on Monday Mr Yanukovych asked the European Commission to allow him to send a delegation for talks on “some aspects” of the EU association agreement that Ukraine had been expected to sign, officials in Brussels said.
Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso agreed to the request, but stressed the Commission was ready to discuss implementation of accords already initialled, “but not to reopen any kind of negotiations”.
Opposition leaders have renewed demands that Mr Yanukovych stand down, and urged him to “stop political repression”.
The protests began just over a week ago after a halt was ordered to preparations to sign a deal on closer integration with the EU.
'Out with the gang!'
Hundreds of people put up tents on Independence Square on Sunday night, after a mass rally that drew hundreds of thousands, amid calls for a general strike.
We certainly don’t consider peaceful demonstrations coup attempts”
Jay CarneyWhite House spokesman
The headquarters of the cabinet has been blockaded, with government employees unable to reach work.
Police reinforcements are being sent to Kiev, Ukrainska Pravda reported.
As thousands of protesters converged on Independence Square on Monday, they chanted slogans including “Out with the gang!”
Prime Minister Azarov, quoted by Interfax news agency, said the political opposition in Ukraine had the “illusion” that it could overthrow the existing order.
"We know that a plan is being prepared to seize the parliament," he said.
Speaking during a meeting, Mr Azarov told Western ambassadors on Monday: “This has all the signs of a coup…
"That is very serious. We are patient, but we want our partners not to feel that everything is permitted."
Later on Monday, the US weighed in to dispute Mr Azarov’s interpretation.
"We certainly don’t consider peaceful demonstrations coup attempts," a White House spokesman said.
Jay Carney added that while violence by the authorities against demonstrators on Saturday had been “unacceptable”, the police had in general been more restrained since.
For his part, President Yanukovych urged police and demonstrators to observe the law.
"Any bad peace is better than a good war," Mr Yanukovych said in a TV interview reported by his own website - his first comments on Sunday’s violence.
President Vladimir Putin of neighbouring Russia said events in Ukraine seemed “more like a rampage than a revolution.”
Mr Putin blamed “outside actors” for the protests, which he said were an attempt to unsettle Ukraine’s “legitimate” rulers.
On Sunday, several hundred thousand people took part in a march, defying a ban on rallies.
There were clashes near the presidential building, with demonstrators firing flares and riot police using tear gas, batons and stun grenades. TV footage appeared to show officers beating reporters.
There were also clashes on Sunday as Kiev protesters tried to topple a statue of Lenin.
Why do Ukraine protests matter?
Day after day thousands of anti-government protesters in Ukraine, one of Europe’s biggest countries, have been thronging central Kiev.
What caused the protests?
The trigger was the government’s decision not to sign a far-reaching partnership deal with the EU, despite years of negotiations aimed at integrating Ukraine with the 28-nation bloc. That decision was announced on 21 November.
Thousands of pro-EU Ukrainians poured onto the streets of the capital - on 24 November the crowd was estimated at more than 100,000. They urged President Viktor Yanukovych to cancel his U-turn and go ahead with the EU deal after all. But he refused, and the protests continue.
Anger with President Yanukovych has escalated, and now protesters are demanding that he and his government resign.
Who are the protesters?
Probably the best-known among them internationally is Vitali Klitschko, a world heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition leader. He heads the Udar (Punch) movement and plans to run for president in 2015. Udar is campaigning for a “modern country with European standards” - that is, loosening ties with Russia and strengthening them with the EU.
An ultra-nationalist group called Svoboda (Freedom) is also protesting. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is second-from-left in the picture.
Between Mr Tyahnybok and Mr Klitschko stands Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s former prime minister and now opposition leader. Historically Poland has vied with Russia for influence in Ukraine. Western Ukraine used to be part of Poland, and cultural and religious ties remain strong.
Other foreign sympathisers have turned up at the rallies. Among them is Russian opposition activist Pyotr Verzilov, husband of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, one of the jailed members of punk band Pussy Riot.
One of the most important Ukrainian protesters is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the country’s second biggest party, called Fatherland. He is an ally of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister now in jail, who is an arch-rival of the president.