Outraged Ukrainians rallied in central Kiev yesterday after President Viktor Yanukovych discussed a new strategic partnership agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin upon rejecting a historic EU deal.
Several thousand supporters of Western integration braved swirling winds and a heavy snowfall to maintain control of the capital’s iconic Independence Square for the seventh successive day.
Some volunteers wrapped themselves in wool blankets as they handed out meals from a makeshift kitchen to the crowd. Others swept up garbage around a few dozen tents set up between barricades on the sprawling square.
Protest organisers expect up to 300,000 to turn out today for the largest demonstration since the 2004 pro-democracy “Orange Revolution” first nudged the former Soviet nation of 46mn closer to the West.
The embattled Ukrainian president held unannounced talks with Putin in Russia on Friday after completing a mission to China aimed at drumming up backing for his cash-strapped government.
Yanukovych’s official website said the meeting at Putin’s Black Sea retreat in Sochi – their fourth in just over a month – focused on “trade and economic co-operation ... and preparation for the future treaty on strategic partnership”.
But some reports said the two also talked about Russia providing Ukraine with billions of dollars in loans and cheap gas in return for its decision to spurn an EU trade agreement that would have opened the way to its membership in the 28-nation bloc.
The political crisis has dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine’s already struggling economy amid growing speculation that Kiev may fail to service billions of dollars in debt and other payments that come due by the end of 2014.
Ukraine rejected the EU deal last month citing both the threat of Russian trade sanctions and the EU’s failure to deliver billions of dollars in compensatory aid.
Putin for his part is keen to pull Ukraine into a Moscow-led Customs Union that already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan and which he hopes to build into a rival to the Brussels-based bloc.
Kiev’s respected Zerkalo Nedeli weekly cited a Russian source as saying that Putin had offered Yanukovych a loan of at least $12bn (8.7bn euros) aimed at propping up Ukraine’s economy and making sure it does not seek help in the West.
The report also said Russia was willing to provide discounted natural gas shipments to a Ukrainian energy firm run by a powerful tycoon whose support is vital to Yanukovych.
The Economist’s senior editor Edward Lucas – known for writing books critical of the Kremlin – for his part tweeted that his sources said Yanukovych had assured Putin of Ukraine’s participation in the Customs Union starting in 2015.
The Ukrainian president’s office issued a statement yesterday firmly rejecting reports that anything specific had been agreed in Sochi.
“No documents were prepared for the meeting and none were signed,” Yanukovych’s office said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told Russian media that “Ukraine’s possible membership in the Customs Union was not discussed at the Sochi meeting”.
But rumours of a possible deal spread quickly across Kiev and prompted opposition leaders to warn of grave consequences if they proved to be true.
“Sunday’s protest can result in a very tragic ending for our country if (Yanukovych) really did sell out Ukraine,” parliament’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) opposition party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said early yesterday.
Yatsenyuk later added that his sources told him Yanukovych planned to sign the new strategic partnership agreement with Putin during a visit to Moscow that the Kremlin said was planned for December 17.
Yatsenyuk and his two opposition protest co-leaders – the nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko – have made the government’s resignation and snap presidential elections their main demands.
The authorities have said they were ready to hold talks with the opposition but dismissed the possibility of early polls.
The protesters’ Western aspiration have won public backing from US officials and seen EU dignitaries such as German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle pay controversial visits to Independence Square that have irritated both Moscow and Kiev.
Yesterday’s rally drew attendance from Georgia’s recent president Mikheil Saakashvili – a heavy Kremlin critic who sought to gain Nato membership for his Caucasus nation during his decade in power.
Saakashvili offered to act as mediator in the stand-off “and do everything possible to help resolve this political crisis”.
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