Raf Casert and Maria Danilova
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA: European Union leaders revived Cold War rhetoric Friday, accusing Russia of bullying Ukraine into ditching a landmark deal so the former Soviet republic would stay locked in Moscow’s orbit.
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the deal at the last minute, acknowledging that Moscow had him cornered.
“I have been one-on-one with Russia for 3½ years under very unequal conditions,” Yanukovych told German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the two-day summit.
The agreement sought to improve bilateral trade, streamline industry rules and bring about key democratic reforms in Ukraine.
Yanukovych complained that the EU hadn’t offered enough in financial incentives to secure his signature. French President Francois Hollande ruled out more EU funds to sweeten the deal.
Russia had worked aggressively to derail the deal by imposing painful trade sanctions and threatening Ukraine with giant gas bills.
Ukraine knows what Russian pressure feels like.
Moscow had previously cut off gas supplies during bitter pricing disputes to leave Ukrainians freezing in the depth of winter. Now, it is offering Ukraine much-needed discounts for its natural gas in exchange for joining a Moscow-led Customs Union.
Although the EU extended its geopolitical reach eastward by initialing agreements with Georgia and Moldova during the two-day summit, Ukraine was a blow.
“We may not give in to external pressure, not the least from Russia,” said EU President Herman Van Rompuy in unusually blunt terms after Yanukovych refused to put ink to paper.
Yanukovych’s move sparked mass protests in the Ukranian capital Friday. Such large demonstrations haven’t been seen since 2004 during the Orange Revolution, which led to the overturn of Yanukovych’s fraud-marred election victory and brought his pro-Western opponent to power. Yanukovych is wary of a repeat.
“Millions of Ukrainians don’t want to return to the Soviet past,” said Olga Shukshina, 46, a doctor from the city of Lviv, close to the border with Poland.
World boxing champion and opposition leader Vitaly Klitshcko called for more protests.
“I am sure we will lead Ukraine into Europe even without Yanukovych,” Klitshcko said in Vilnius. “This is our task, the task of the opposition forces, and the task of every Ukrainian.”
In Moscow, Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Kremlin-controlled lower house of Russian parliament, harshly criticized the EU for sending special envoys to Ukraine as its parliament pondered closer ties with the West.
“We have witnessed an unprecedented pressure on Ukraine from Western nations,” Naryshkin said.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso complained about Russia’s trade threats and said “the times for limited sovereignty are over in Europe,” alleging Russia still seemed to consider Ukraine as a subservient neighbor.