Ukraine protesters warn against trade pact with Moscow

Ahead of a visit to Moscow by Ukraine’s president, protesters filled central Kyiv, warning him not to sign a trade pact with Russia.

Ruslana Lyzhychko, the pop singer who is the muse of the pro-Europe movement here, gave the core message: “Ukraine wants to be part of Europe.”

President Viktor Yanukovych says on Tuesday in Moscow he will only sign economic agreements that restore normal trading relations with Russia, Ukraine’s largest trading partner.  But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told a pro-government rally on Saturday the government is finalizing negotiations with the Kremlin on a new strategic partnership agreement.

Protesters worry Yanukovych will sign a secret treaty that will bind Ukraine to joining President Vladimir Putin’s new Moscow-centered Customs Union.

On Sunday, Stanislav, a 56-year-old businessman from Poltava, was on the edge of a sea of protesters estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.

“It is the restoration of the Soviet Union, the same Soviet Union that I lived through,” he said of President Putin’s economic group, formally called the Eurasian Union.

At every entrance to the barricaded encampment, volunteers handed out flyers, urging people to keep up protest numbers during the president’s Moscow visit.  The flyer warned: “On the 17th Yanukovych flies to Moscow to sell out Ukraine and to ask Putin for money to save his skin.”

Moral support came from two visiting American senators, one a Democrat and the other Republican.  Senator Chris Murphy, the Democrat, told the crowd: “Ukraine’s future stands with Europe, and the United States stands with Ukraine.”

Senator John McCain, the Republican, also spoke from the stage.  “To all Ukrainians, America stands with you,”  the senator said, pausing for the translation into Ukrainian.  “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.”

In return, the crowd chanted English: “Thank you, USA. Thank you, USA.”

George Woloshyn, a Ukrainian-American from Virginia, was walking through the crowd at the time, carrying an American flag on a long pole.

“Everyone was very enthusiastic,” he said of Senator McCain’s reception. “People were greeting him. They were thanking him. Everybody was saying ‘thank you, thank you.’ So I think you have an enormously impressive response on the part of Ukrainians to Senator McCain.”

Europe frustrated too

Adding to the American pressure, the European Union said Sunday that it was indefinitely suspending talks on association pacts with the Yanukovych government.

European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele tweeted: “Words & deeds of President & government regarding the Association Agreement are further & further apart.  Their arguments have no grounds in reality.”

Last week, as protests mounted here, Yanukovych sent a negotiating team to Brussels. But Fuele tweeted Sunday that he saw no commitment by Ukraine’s president to sign a deal.

Ukraine’s ruling Regions Party had intended to stage a mass rally on Sunday to compete with the pro-Europe rally.  But plans were cancelled after turnout was thin at a warm-up rally on Saturday.

That rally was composed largely of groups of workers sent by bus or train from eastern Ukraine, where the economy depends heavily on Russia.  One man told VOA that he was paid 200 Ukrainian hryvnia – about $25 – to attend.

Another protester, Andrei, a fur-hatted retired coal miner, said he came to support Ukraine’s unity.

“We are for one, unified nation,” he said. “Not East, not West.  We are Ukrainians, Belorussians, Russians – we should all live together in a friendly way.”

But only 500 meters away, barriers of snow and steel protected the pro-Europe encampment.  Volunteers served sandwiches and hot tea for thousands.  And one of Ukraine’s top rock bands was about to take the stage for another free concert.  The pro-Europe protesters showed every sign of camping out for the long haul.

(Photo: Ivo Bojkov via Facebook)



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.