Kiev (AFP) – The Ukrainian authorities admitted for the first time on Tuesday Moscow had asked Kiev to delay signing a pact with Brussels that would have opened the ex-Soviet state’s path to EU membership.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s disclosure came as thousands of protesters prepared to gather in central Kiev for a third day of mass demonstrations against Ukraine’s shock decision to scrap the landmark agreement in favor of closer relations with historic master Russia.
The rallies have been the largest to hit the nation of 45 million since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004 briefly brought down a government openly backed by Moscow.
EU leaders have angrily accused Russia of putting political and economic pressure on its smaller neighbor not to sign the Association Agreement at a two-day summit that starts in Vilnius on Thursday.
Russia has rejected the charge and accused Brussels itself of “blackmailing” the Ukrainian leadership by fanning the demonstrations in Kiev.
Azarov confirmed to foreign reporters on Tuesday that Russia had suggested putting off the deal with Brussels. “Delay the signing of the agreement, we will sit at the table, come to an agreement on something,” he quoted the Russians as saying.
Azarov also expressed frustration that his country had become the subject of a heated diplomatic tug of war between Moscow and Brussels.
“Ukraine does not want to be a battlefield between Russia and the EU,” said Azarov.
“Ukraine does not want to be the object of international politics. Our own interests should be taken into account.”
Organizers expect thousands to again take to the streets on Tuesday evening for mass protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s U-turn on the EU accord.
Sporadic clashes have marred the rallies in Kiev and more nationalist parts of western Ukraine. Riot police have been seen firing tear gas at demonstrators and protesters have hurled street cones and rocks at security personnel.
The same scenes played out near the government seat on Monday evening as Yulia Tymoshenko — an Orange Revolution co-leader and former premier who has been in jail since 2011 — announced in a letter read at the rally that she was going on hunger strike.
“And if Yanukovych does not sign our agreement with the EU on November 29, wipe him off the face of Ukraine through peaceful and constitutional means,” she said.
Protesters have set up two dozen tents in central Kiev where they have been spending the night to make sure police do not close off the square where the largest demonstrations are being held.
Some started makeshift fires in large metal barrels to keep warm from the freezing drizzle and the season’s first sightings of snow.
Two top members of the European Parliament warned Ukraine on Tuesday that it faced “serious consequences” should police continue resorting to the use of force against protesters.
Ukraine’s unexpected change of heart on the EU agreement came shortly after Yanukovych held secret talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin meant to address economic sanctions Moscow planned to slap on Kiev if it signed the EU pact.
These included a threat to impose strict conditions on Russian natural gas deliveries on which Ukraine depends most strongly in the winter months.
Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported on Tuesday that the Vilnius summit was going to adopt a veiled warning to Russia not to interfere in its neighbors’ affairs.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency on Tuesday that “in this case, it is inappropriate to speak of some sort of pressure” being placed by Russia on its neighbor.
Putin sees neighboring Ukraine — a country known in Russia as the “near abroad” — as a vital member of a rival economic bloc called the Customs Union that already includes Kazakhstan and Belarus.
The 28-nation European bloc has said its offer is “still on the table” and reiterated its criticism of Russia’s intimidation of Ukraine.
Yanukovych late on Monday said his change of mind was based on the dangers economically struggling Ukraine would face if it ruptured its tight trade ties with Russia.
“I want peace and calm in our big Ukrainian family,” the president said in a video statement posted on his website.
Ukraine’s decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament repeatedly failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko — a top EU condition for the signing of the deal.