Ukraine says still wants to reach historic EU pact
Ukraine said on Wednesday it still wanted to reach a historic agreement with the European Union on closer relations despite breaking off talks on the pact in a shock move that set off mass protests.
But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's announcement failed to appease protesters who blockaded the government building during Wednesday's cabinet talks on the fourth day of mass demonstrations -- the largest since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
Azarov told his ministers that Ukraine intended to forge closer relations with the European Union as soon as it resolved its remaining trade differences with Russia.
"I affirm with full authority that the negotiating process over the Association Agreement is continuing, and the work on moving our country closer to European standards is not stopping for a single day," Azarov said.
EU officials had hoped to sign the so-called Association Agreement with Kiev at a two-day summit that starts on Thursday in Vilnius.
But the Ukrainian government suddenly halted negotiations citing concerns that the deal in its current form would harm the country's economy as well as trade and economic relations with its giant eastern neighbour.
Kiev blamed EU officials for the talks' failure by accusing them of insufficiently compensating Ukraine for the damages it would suffer from puncturing its tight economic ties to Russia.
Azarov's comments came as nearly a thousand protesters rallied outside the government building in the capital demanding the deal's signature in Vilnius.
The crowd included such top opposition leaders as world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and heads of nationalist parties whose support is grounded in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the former Soviet state.
"These authorities have to step down," Klitschko said to loud cries of "Shame!"
"We want to live according to European laws," said the UDAR (Punch) party leader.
The EU agreement is seen as Ukraine's first step toward eventual membership in the 28-nation bloc and would pull it out of Russia's orbit for the first time.
But Russia wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union that President Vladimir Putin sees as a future alternative to the European Union and already includes the ex-Soviet states of Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Azarov assured Wednesday's cabinet meeting that "there will be no split in our society because we are not going to change our course away from European integration."
-- EU 'strongly disapproves' of Russian pressure --
The debate over Ukraine's future has turned into a heated diplomatic tussle between EU leaders and Putin's Kremlin.
The EU has accused Moscow of using unreasonable economic threats to pressure its smaller neighbour -- heavily dependent on Russian natural gas -- not to sign the deal.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso have said they "strongly disapprove" of Russia's actions.
Putin responded on Tuesday by advising "our friends in Brussels, my personal good friends in the European Commission, to hold back on the sharp words."
"Do we have to choke entire sectors of our economy for them to like us?" he said during a visit to Italy.
The Ukrainian authorities have called for calm after at times violent mass demonstrations that have seen riot police fire tear gas at protesters who hurled traffic cones and rocks at security forces.
Tens of thousands massed in Kiev on Sunday and up to 20,000 on Monday when jailed opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko went on hunger strike and urged Ukrainians to pressure the leadership into signing the pact.
Some 7,000 gathered in Kiev and over 20,000 protested in the western city of Lviv on Tuesday.
Ukraine's decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko -- a top EU condition for the deal.
© 2013 AFP