KIEV, Ukraine – Ukrainian officials were in Brussels on Thursday for talks with the European Union as the bloc’s foreign policy chief said the country’s embattled president “intends to sign” at some point a trade and co-operation agreement he rejected last month.
Demonstrators angry over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to shelve the long-anticipated agreement will be watching the meeting closely, worried that he could instead sign an agreement to join a Russia-led customs union when he and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet next week.
Yanukovych appears to be in a tough corner. As protesters furious over his decision to turn away from the EU clog the centre of Kyiv, he appears to be leaving his options open for the best deal he can get from his economically troubled country’s powerful suitors.
Russia has put heavy pressure on Ukraine to join its bloc, which includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. Opponents say the bloc effectively tries to recreate the Soviet Union.
Yanukovych has said he is still open to the EU association agreement if he can get a deal providing more aid to Ukraine, which is concerned about the impact of losing trade with Russia. The talks between the EU and the Ukrainian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov could bring clarity on whether such aid is possible.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for signing this document,” Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara told the Interfax news agency on Thursday.
The Kyiv protests swelled to hundreds of thousands after police violently broke up two early rallies. Demonstrators are riding a wave of high morale after riot police stood down from two confrontations with protesters on Wednesday.
Protesters are reinforcing their positions in Kyiv’s centre, erecting sizeable new barricades across streets leading to Independence Square.
EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton, who talked with Yanukovych and opposition figures in Kyiv this week, said the short-term economic and financial issues Ukraine faces can be alleviated by signing the deal, which she said “will help to bring in the kind of investment that he needs.”
“Look, Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” Ashton said on arrival for a meeting in Brussels early Thursday after her visit to Kyiv.
Ashton said Ukraine’s economic problems “can be addressed by the support that not only comes from the EU institutions, but actually by showing that he has a serious economic plan in signing the association agreement.”
Ukrainians in the east look more favourably on closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych, who is seeking a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep Ukraine from going bankrupt, is sensitive to the economic disruption that trade disputes with Russia can cause.
The association agreement sought to improve bilateral trade, streamline industry rules and bring about democratic reforms to promote justice and human rights. It stops short of offering EU membership but would open borders with Ukraine for increased commerce.
At the Vilnius summit where Yanukovych refused to sign the deal, two other eastern nations, Moldova and Georgia, initiated similar association agreements which will only need signatures from their institutions next year.