Ukraine Braces for Competing Protests as Talks Fail

Ukrainians are bracing for competing demonstrations in Kiev tomorrow pitting the anti-government camp against supporters of President Viktor Yanukovych.

Mass protests sprang up after the government pulled out of a planned co-operation agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia and intensified in response to a police crackdown. The first talks yesterday between the sides failed to ease the crisis. The U.S. has threatened to impose trade sanctions on Ukraine over the crackdown on pro-EU protests and U.S., while European lawmakers urged the 28-nation bloc to consider steps against Russia. That drew Moscow’s ire.

“We are surprised by the almost hysterical reaction” of the West “to the sovereign decision of Ukraine’s legitimate authorities,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said as cited by Russia Today television. “Our European partners are first and foremost concerned with losing this inexpensive, if not free, addition to their profits in the times of crisis.”

U.S. Senator John McCain plans to visit Kiev today and tomorrow for talks with the government and opposition, the Daily Beast website cited his spokesman as saying.

Ukraine’s largest protests in almost a decade are stretching into a fourth week. While Yanukovych plans to sign a trade agreement with Russia next week, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the head of jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, said the meeting yesterday had been the last chance to resolve the conflict peacefully.

No-Confidence Vote

Yatsenyuk told reporters today that the opposition is just a “few votes” short of forcing a new no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister Azarov’s cabinet. A similar motion failed on Dec. 3.

Ukraine, the second-most populous post-Soviet state with 45 million people, is a key transit country for Russian gas being sent to western Europe. The nation’s black soil produced more than a quarter of Soviet farm output, according to the CIA’s World Factbook and grain exports rose an annual 22 percent in the marketing year from July 1.

Pro-European protesters with blue-yellow Ukrainian flags filled central Independence Square today, where thousands spent the night behind barricades made of snow, logs and tires.

Cast-iron ovens and makeshift steel barrels were set up across the square amid stacks of firewood to keep people warm in temperatures forecast to drop to minus 7 degrees Celsius (19 Fahrenheit) tonight. Soup was being cooked in pots suspended over fires and volunteers were distributing sandwiches.

‘Opposition Incensed’

While Yanukovych proposed an amnesty for some detained activists, he skirted protesters’ demands for the government’s dismissal and the punishment of those responsible for violence against protesters. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said yesterday’s talks yielded nothing, warning of potential provocation and the possibility of a police crackdown.

“Yanukovych is grabbing at whatever straw is being held in front of him, because the protests have gone beyond being about the EU deal and now also focus on him,” Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, said in a phone interview. “He’s fighting for his political life and the command economy empire he and his supporters have built up.”

Officials Fired

Yanukovych today fired the head of the Kiev city administration, Oleksandr Popov, along with three other officials prosecutors say are suspected of ordering the use of force against protesters on Nov. 30. The measure, while necessary, falls short of the opposition’s demands, Klitschko’s Udar party said.

“These concessions are the necessary first step, but they are insufficient to restore justice,” the party said on its website.

For tomorrow’s rally, the opposition aims to match the size of crowds the past two Sundays, which it estimated at half a million. About 60,000 people attended a pro-government rally in Kiev today, Unian news service reported, citing police. The event ended at 5 p.m., according to police. The square was empty by 7 p.m.

The Kiev city council said there may be as many as 200,000 government supporters nearby. About 20,000 people from the eastern city of Donetsk, where Yanukovych once served as regional governor, are heading to the capital to support him, the ruling party’s local branch said, the Interfax news service reported yesterday.

‘Neutral Line’

Activists, concerned about provocateurs, are planning to create a “neutral line” between the two demonstrations, Taras Stetskiv, a protest organizer, told Ukraine’s Channel 5 yesterday.

Hundreds of riot police with shields flooded into a camp built by protesters in the early hours of Dec. 11 to dismantle makeshift barricades and a tent encampment. They eventually retreated, with activists rebuilding their wooden and metal barriers, shoring them up with sandbags and mounds of snow.

Some demonstrators are optimistic that the reactions to the previous crackdowns convinced authorities to avoid further violence.

“Everything will be calm today,” said Fedor Kuras, a pensioner from Myronivka, a suburb of Kiev. “They saw the consequences of beating the students and that it fired people up.”

Moscow Trip

Ukrainian assets gained yesterday as the government said it will sign an accord next week to end trade friction with Russia. Yanukovych is planning to travel to Moscow Dec. 17 to complete a deal to regulate trade relations through 2015.

The deal will restore trade links after Ukraine’s EU’s plans prompted Russian bans on exports such as chocolate, Azarov told the round-table meeting. Signing the EU accords would have pushed Ukraine into default, according to the premier. Yanukovych also warned that the protests are hurting the country’s economy, going through its third recession since 2008, with foreign-currency reserves at a seven-year low.

Yanukovych walked away from the EU deal after Russia, which supplies 60 percent of Ukraine’s natural gas and buys a quarter of its exports, threatened trade sanctions.

‘Purely Economic’

Azarov on Nov. 22 said motivation for backing out of the treaty was “purely economic,” with the government making the “only possible” choice. A decline in trade with Russia has led to falling industrial production, “pushing Ukraine to the edge of huge social and economic troubles,” he told lawmakers in Kiev a day after making the u-turn.

The EU and Russia have been tussling over Ukraine’s future in recent days. The EU on Dec. 12 offered development funds if Ukraine signs the trade pact with the 28-member bloc and taps International Monetary Fund aid. Russian President Vladimir Putin the same day said its neighbors interest will grow in a rival Moscow-led customs union.

Yanukovych said Dec. 10 that he intends to sign the EU accord at a March meeting and restart talks with the Washington-based IMF if “conditions are acceptable.” Ukraine is seeking 20 billion euros ($27.6 billion) in financing from the EU, Azarov said Dec. 11.

Barring a “dramatic political move” such as calling early elections, “Yanukovych is now down to two simple choices, either to accept a deal with the EU/IMF or accept what has been tabled by Russia,” according to Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Moscow-based Macro Advisory.

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