A Pro-European integration protester waves a Ukrainian
national flag as she stands on a statue during a mass rally
at Independence Square in Kiev. REUTERS/Marco Djurica
Thousands have rallied against Ukrainian President Viktor
Yanukovich just days before he heads for a meeting in the
Kremlin and opposition leaders told him not to bother coming
back if he "sells out" Ukraine.
Minutes before the rally, EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele
said on Twitter he had told Ukraine he was suspending work on
a trade and political deal, which should have been signed two
weeks ago, saying Kiev's arguments to improve terms had "no
grounds in reality".
Fuele's words suggested the European Union has lost patience
with Kiev's demands for financial aid and was irritated at
the way the bloc was being forced to take part in a 'bidding
war' with Russia over Ukraine.
The focus was now on a visit Yanukovich is due to make to
Moscow next Tuesday to tie up trade agreements with the
Kremlin to help the distressed Ukrainian economy, but which
the opposition fears will slam the door on integration with
the European mainstream.
In particular, they fear he may take the first steps towards
joining a Moscow-led customs union, together with Belarus and
Kazakhstan, which they see as an attempt by Putin to
re-create the Soviet Union.
"He might as well stay in Moscow and not come back to Kiev if
a customs union agreement is signed," declared former economy
minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition leaders.
"We'll give him a really warm welcome if he sells out
"The Kremlin wants to take its revenge on Ukraine, divide
Ukraine and drown it in blood," said far-right nationalist
leader Oleh Tyahnybok. "We forbid this president to sign
anything in Moscow that contradicts the interests of the
Yanukovich may be attempting to keep the attention of both
Moscow and Brussels to strike as good a deal as possible to
handle its huge debt and outstanding gas payments to Moscow.
But it is a hazardous manoeuvre running the risk of
alienating both parties.
Opposition leaders called for another mass rally on Tuesday
to monitor Yanukovich's trip to Moscow and any deals made
there. 'DESTINY IN EUROPE'
Earlier, U.S. Senator John McCain galvanised the 200,000 or
so people on Kiev's Independence Square, telling them their
destiny lay in Europe.
"We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right
of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and
independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe," said
McCain, a leading Republican voice on U.S. foreign policy.
Street protests erupted after Yanukovich's decision on Nov.
21 to walk away from the agreement with the EU, after years
of careful preparation, and turn to Moscow, Kiev's Soviet-era
overlord, for aid to save Ukraine's economy.
Yanukovich's policy swerve, while backed by many in
Russian-speaking east Ukraine which is his powerbase, sparked
huge disappointment and anger in western and central areas
where people see Europe as their proper place.
The presence of McCain at the anti-government rally after a
weeks-long stand-off between demonstrators and the
authorities further highlighted the geo-political East-West
tug-of-war which Ukraine is once again at the centre of.
The Republican senator is the latest of a string of European
and American dignitaries to tour the sprawling protest camp
set up behind barricades of benches, metal barriers,
supermarket trollies and wire netting on the square - known
locally as the 'maidan'.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has accused Western
politicians of "crude" meddling in Ukraine's affairs.
The movement began as a low-level pro-EU protest.
But after a police crackdown on a group of mainly students
and a later face-off between police and protesters last
Wednesday, it has broadened into an outpouring of anger
against perceived sleaze and corruption in the country
Yanukovich has led for four years.
BATTLE FOR SOUL
Protesters characterise it as a battle for Ukraine's soul.
McCain, who met opposition leaders - the former boxing
champion Vitaly Klitchko as well as Yatsenyuk and Tyahnybok -
said: "We ... want to make it clear to Russia and Vladimir
Putin that interference in the affairs of Ukraine is not
acceptable to the United States."
Speaking to journalists after addressing crowds, he said it
was disturbing to hear that the EU may be suspending talks
with Ukraine on the trade and political agreement.
Yanukovich, whose allies hold a majority in parliament and
who still appears to command loyalty in the security forces,
seems likely to hang on to power despite the strength of
peaceful rallies and opposition calls for early elections.
But much may depend now on what sort of deal he can cut with
Putin next Tuesday on cheaper gas and credits, how well he
can present it to his people and how quickly any help will
trickle down to Ukraine's creaking economy.
But any step by Yanukovich towards the Moscow-led customs
union, which the opposition sees as a return to the Soviet
Union, will be a dangerous one for him to take.
Whatever the outcome, his popularity has suffered hugely from
the crisis, the opposition has been re-energised, the faith
of key stakeholders such as the oligarchs has been shaken and
he can no longer assume re-election in 2015 is in the bag.
Klitschko's UDAR party called on Sunday for the dismissal of
Andriy Kluyev, one of Yanukovich's closest security aides,
whom the opposition says was behind past attempts to break up
the protests by force.
On Sunday, the crowds gathered on Independence Square were
smaller than a week before but no less determined.
"I am here against the criminal authorities, joining Europe
is a secondary goal," said Oleksander Vdovin, 25, an engineer
in Kiev wrapped in a Ukrainian flag.
Yanukovich's supporters have also staged rival rallies nearby
on Saturday and Sunday.
"We are here because an effort to destabilise the country has
begun. I voted for the president, I'm here to back him," said
Nikolai, 61, who works in the southern Ukrainian port of