Ukrainian president says no alternative to Russian deal

Thursday 12 December 2013 10.50
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Police gave the protesters five days from last Thursday to leave the streets
Police gave the protesters five days from last Thursday to leave the streets
Thousands have maintained a round-the-clock protest camp in the city centre, blocked roads, besieged government buildings and occupied the capital's city hall
Thousands have maintained a round-the-clock protest camp in the city centre, blocked roads, besieged government buildings and occupied the capital's city hall
Protesters face riot police near the Presidential office building where thousands of demonstrators continued to demand the Ukrainian government's resignation
Protesters face riot police near the Presidential office building where thousands of demonstrators continued to demand the Ukrainian government's resignation

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych conceded no ground today to protesters who want their government to move closer to the European Union.

Mr Yanukovych insisted his government needs to deepen trade ties with Russia instead.

In his first public appearance since meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin last Friday, Mr Yanukovych ignored the demands of pro-Europe protesters.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the past two weeks, including thousands camped out round-the-clock in freezing temperatures.

"We cannot talk about the future without talking about restoring trade relations with Russia," Mr Yanukovych 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 21 November.

The protesters, who range from liberals to far-right nationalists, say Mr Yanukovych 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 last night pushed them from some streets.

The crisis has revealed stark divisions in the country of 46m 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 master.

The crisis has weighed on an economy already on the brink of bankruptcy.

The cost of insuring Ukrainian debt rose to the highest level in four years today. 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.

Ms Nuland met the leaders of three main opposition parties.

Ms Ashton expressed concern that one of the parties' offices was raided by masked police yesterday.             

Protesters, particularly those occupying City Hall, near Independence Square, say they are braced for police action to eject them.             

Police have largely shown restraint since 30 November, when they injured scores of demonstrators in clashes.

The US 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 Square.             

Their 24-hour vigil in tents replays a tactic from the "Orange Revolution" in 2004 which successfully overturned a fraudulent election victory by Mr Yanukovych.

Ilya Shutov, an ex-miner from the eastern city of Donetsk, said the protesters would stay on the square until Mr Yanukovych left office.       

"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.             

Mr Yanukovych, in what was billed as a first step towards solving the crisis through talks involving opposition parties, met three former Ukrainian presidents today.

But his televised comments showed no readiness to reverse policy.    

Nor did he give any details of last Friday's talks with Mr Putin, though he said Russia 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 Mr Yanukovych 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 $4bn 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 of imports.

Keywords: ukraine, kiev