Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- More than 100,000 Ukrainians marched against a decision by President Viktor Yanukovych’s government to cut off preparations for a free-trade pact with the European Union and seek closer ties with Russia.
In the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution, throngs of demonstrators, many of them families with children, flowed through downtown Kiev, the capital. Opposition leaders, including Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, led the march after the former prime minister urged people to take to the streets.
Tensions have been rising since the government halted preparations for the EU deal on Nov. 21, saying it wanted to focus on reviving trade with Russia and other ex-Soviet states. Protesters have since poured into Kiev’s Independence Square, the focal point of Orange Revolution protests nine years ago that overturned a Yanukovych presidential election victory opposition parties said was marred by corruption and fraud.
“Our task is to sign the agreement with the EU,” Yatsenyuk told a rally in European Square today, near Independence Square. “We want to go to Europe. This is our future.”
The protests underscore a long-standing dispute over where Ukraine belongs in Europe between its more pro-EU west and the Russian-speaking east and south. The EU and Russia each buy about a quarter of Ukrainian exports and have been jostling over relations with the country of 45 million -- the second-most populous former Soviet state -- which is a crucial transit route for energy shipments.
The two sides accused each other of blackmail, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the EU is encouraging protests.
“We are together. We are united. We are Europe,” protesters chanted, waving banners as a rock band played. Police on the scene estimated the crowd at 110,000 at noon.
One policeman was taken to hospital after about 100 pro-EU demonstrators threw rocks and fireworks at officers at the event, police spokeswoman Olga Bilyk said by phone. About 24,000 government supporters held a parallel rally about a mile away, she said. Pro-EU Rallies also took place in other cities across Ukraine, including Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Lviv, where at least 10,000 people gathered, Interfax reported.
European governments have urged Ukraine to sign association and free-trade agreements at a Nov. 28-29 summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas, threatened trade measures if the deal went forward, offering membership in its customs union as an alternative.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said yesterday that Russia too often views European overtures toward its eastern neighbors for tighter political and economic ties as “directed against Russia.” She will address the issue with Putin “at the next opportunity,” she said in her weekly podcast.
“We’re going to have to speak with Russia so that there isn’t always this situation where it’s either/or,” she said.
While Yanukovych reiterated on Nov. 21 that his country’s goal is European integration, lawmakers repeatedly failed to pass a bill to allow Tymoshenko to travel abroad for medical treatment, a key EU condition for the trade accord to proceed.
“It is our chance to complete what we didn’t do in 2004,” Tymoshenko wrote in a letter read by her daughter Yevgenia to protesters in Kiev today.“Our future is in a united Europe.”
Yanukovych has accused Tymoshenko of involvement in crimes including a murder, claims she denies. He defeated Tymoshenko to become president in 2010 after serving two stints as premier and now trails world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko in polls for the presidency.
Ukraine’s motivation for suspending preparations for the EU treaty was “purely economic,” with the government making the “only possible” choice in the situation, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told lawmakers in Kiev on Nov. 22.
Backing for membership of the 28-nation bloc is at 58 percent, according to a poll of 1,000 people this month by researcher IFAK Institut GmbH & Co. It gave no margin of error.
“I want my grandchildren to live in Europe,” Nadiya Shunko, a 64-year-old pensioner said in Kiev today. “When Yanukovych promised he would sign the pact, I had hope. I hope these protests press the authorities.”
Speaking over chants of “Shame!” by opposition lawmakers, who attempted to keep him from speaking, Azarov said a Nov. 20 letter from the IMF tipped the balance for Ukraine.
The reasons may have been more complex, according to former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, one of the EU’s main negotiators with Ukraine. While economic difficulties contributed to the Nov. 21 decision, “unprecedented pressure” from Russia also played a part, he said.
Opposition parties submitted a request for an extraordinary meeting in parliament next week to adopt laws necessary to sign the EU pact and will push for the assembly’s dissolution if they fail to pass, Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov said, reading a resolution to protesters. Opposition parties lack a majority in the chamber. He said protests would carry on for as long as needed, as demonstrators erected several dozen tents as part of the protests.
The EU is “pressuring and blackmailing” Ukraine to reverse the Nov. 21 decision, Putin said Nov. 22 in St. Petersburg. The Black Sea state is crucial to Putin’s ambition to set up a trading area to emulate the Brussels-centered bloc.
The EU continues “to believe that Ukraine’s future lies in a strong relationship with” the western bloc, Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters Nov. 22 in Brussels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been expected to participate in a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Kiev next month, won’t be going, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Nov. 22 in Washington. The U.S. will be represented by Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs.
“Yanukovych may reverse his government’s decision to suspend the deal with the EU should 100,000 people gather in Kiev.” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Political Analysis Center. “Yanukovych himself has not said the final word yet as he leaves some space for maneuver.”