Ukrainian opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk and EU foreign
policy chief Catherine Ashton walk in Independence Square
in Kiev. REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich gave no ground
today to protesters who want Kiev to move closer to the
European Union, insisting his government needs to deepen trade
ties with Russia instead.
In his first public appearance since meeting Russia's
President Vladimir Putin last Friday, Yanukovich ignored the
demands of pro-Europe protesters, hundreds of thousands of
whom have taken to the streets in the past two weeks,
including thousands camped out round-the-clock in freezing
"We cannot talk about the future without talking about
restoring trade relations with Russia," Yanukovich said in
televised comments. He added he was also committed to
European integration - wording he has often used since his
government turned its back on a trade pact with the EU on
The protesters, who range from liberals to far-right
nationalists, say Yanukovich and his government must resign.
They are maintaining a tented camp in the snowbound capital's
vast Independence Square and occupying public buildings,
defying riot police who late on Monday pushed them from some
The crisis has revealed stark divisions in the country of 46
million between those, mainly from the Russian-speaking east,
who view Moscow as a source of stability and those, mainly
from the Ukrainian-speaking west, who want to join the
European mainstream and leave the orbit of the former Soviet
The crisis has weighed on an economy already on the brink of
bankruptcy. The cost of insuring Ukrainian debt rose to the
highest in four years on Tuesday. Bond prices fell sharply.
In a flurry of diplomacy, US assistant secretary of state
Victoria Nuland and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
both flew to Kiev. Nuland met the leaders of three main
opposition parties. Ashton expressed concern that one of the
parties' offices was raided by masked police on Monday.
Protesters, particularly those occupying City Hall a stone's
throw from Independence Square, say they are braced for
police action to eject them.
Police have largely shown restraint since Nov. 30, when they
injured scores of demonstrators in clashes. Washington and
the EU have urged authorities not to allow police violence.
Dozens of riot police removed barricades leading to the
presidency, cabinet offices and parliament overnight but
there were no clashes. Protesters regrouped at Independence
Their 24-hour vigil in tents replays a tactic from the
"Orange Revolution" in 2004 which successfully overturned a
fraudulent election victory by Yanukovich. Ilya Shutov, an
ex-miner from the eastern city of Donetsk, said the
protesters would stay on the square until Yanukovich left
"We were for the EU association agreement because we thought
it would force our authorities to be civilised. Their refusal
of Europe is a refusal to be civilised," he said.
Yanukovich, in what was billed as a first step towards
solving the crisis through talks involving opposition
parties, met three former Ukrainian presidents on Tuesday.
But his televised comments showed no readiness to reverse
Nor did he give any details of last Friday's talks with
Putin, though he said Moscow had agreed to discuss the price
Ukraine pays for Russian gas - long a bone of contention. He
spoke dismissively of terms for an International Monetary
Fund loan, a sign he is not relying on the West for cash.
The opposition suspects Yanukovich may be readying to take
Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union, a prospect that
brought hundreds of thousands of angry protesters to a rally
on Sunday where demonstrators tore down and smashed a giant
statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin.
EU leaders say their trade pact would have brought
investment, but Ukraine's Soviet-era industry relies on
Russian natural gas, giving the Kremlin enormous leverage.
Kiev is due to pay just under $4 billion in debt repayments
and Russian gas bills in the first three months of 2014. Its
foreign reserves have been eroded to prop up the local
hryvnia currency. Central Bank figures on Friday revealed
only enough foreign currency on hand for less than two months
The IMF has pushed Ukraine to raise the domestic price of gas
and allow the currency to float more flexibily, but the
government has refused. If the Fund continued to insist on
conditions then "such credit is not needed", Yanukovich said.
Nuland arrived in Kiev from talks in Moscow, where the US
embassy said she expressed "deep concern" about the situation
in Ukraine and urged Russia to use its influence to press for
"peace, human dignity and a political solution".
The EU's Ashton expressed concern at a raid by masked police
on the Kiev offices of jailed opposition leader Yulia
Tymoshenko's political party. The EU considers Tymoshenko a
political prisoner and had sought her freedom as part of the
negotiations for the now-mothballed trade pact.
"I call on the Ukrainian authorities to exercise utmost
restraint and refrain from any further use of force, in order
to give space for a negotiated solution out of the current
political stalemate," Ashton said in a statement.
Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, approved
a non-binding statement accusing Western nations of
interfering in Ukraine and said the protesters in Kiev were
destabilising the country. It urged the West to "stop
mounting external pressure on the politics of a country that
is brotherly to us".