KIEV (Reuters) - The European Union said on Sunday it was halting work on a landmark trade and political pact with Ukraine, hardening their rift even as tens of thousands took to the streets of Kiev urging President Viktor Yanukovich to mend ties with Brussels.
EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele said on Twitter the words and deeds of Yanukovich and his government on the deal were “further and further apart”.
His announcement came as 200,000 people braved sub-zero temperatures in Kiev to rally for the fourth weekend in a row against Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the EU pact at a summit last month and concentrate instead on closer ties with Russia.
The EU had kept its offer on the table but Fuele said on Sunday the Ukrainian government’s subsequent arguments on the terms of the deal had “no grounds in reality”. “Work on hold,” he added.
Fuele’s words suggested the EU 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.
The opposition fears 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 President Vladimir 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 an opposition leader and former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk. “We’ll give him a really warm welcome if he sells out Ukraine.”
“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 Ukrainian state.”
Protesters called for another mass rally on Tuesday to monitor Yanukovich’s trip to Moscow. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said late on Sunday he expected a deal on lower prices for Russian gas deliveries to Ukraine.
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.
The anti-government protesters received powerful encouragement on Sunday as U.S. Senator John McCain addressed the crowd 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 November 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, disappointed and angered many in western and central areas where people feel close ties to Europe.
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 with Ukraine at its centre.
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.
The movement began as a 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.
Protesters characterize it as a battle for Ukraine’s soul.
McCain, who met the trio of opposition leaders - the former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko 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 media after addressing crowds, he said news of Brussels suspending talks with Kiev was “very disturbing”.
McCain later met Yanukovich and shook hands, though details of what they discussed were not immediately available.
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.
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 will be a dangerous one for him to take.
His popularity has already suffered hugely from the crisis, the opposition has been re-energized, 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, blaming him for 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 destabilize 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 Kherson.
Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Alissa de Carbonnel and Pavel Polityuk, Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Heavens