By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko on Friday called on people to take to the streets after President Viktor Yanukovich's government dropped plans for a landmark deal with the European Union and revived talks on ties with Russia.
Several hundred demonstrators, ringed by riot police, had already gathered in central Kiev denouncing the government's action even before Tymoshenko issued her emotional appeal. They waved EU flags and chanted anti-government slogans.
The protests evoked memories of the Orange Revolution, which Tymoshenko co-led, but their numbers could not compared with the tens of thousands who massed nine years ago.
There was a likelihood, however, of a far higher turn-out on Sunday, when a large rally is being called by the opposition.
"I am calling on all people to react to this (news) as they would to a coup d'etat - that is: get out on to the streets," the 52-year-old politician said in a letter read to journalists by her lawyer, Serhiy Vlasenko.
In a separate statement, Tymoshenko said she had felt "simply like killing" Yanukovich when she heard of the government's U-turn.
The policy reverse after years of building up to the signing of a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, scheduled for November 29, had been driven by economic reality, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told a rowdy session of parliament.
The country of 46 million is heavily indebted and must find more than $17 billion next year to meet gas bills to Russia and debt repayments including $3.7 billion to the International Monetary Fund.
"The decision to suspend signing the agreement with the EU was difficult but the only possible one in the current economic situation in Ukraine. This decision was dictated solely by economic reasons and is tactical," he said.
He hastily left the chamber at the end of his speech when opposition members, dressed in white and red sweaters declaring "Freedom to Ukraine" and "Ukraine is Europe", booed him and threw stacks of papers at his ministers.
Speaking later on a TV talk show, Azarov asked for understanding from the EU for the country's economic plight and appeared to hold out the chance of talks resuming with the bloc in the near future on signing the agreement.
"I do not see anything historic in what is happening if in six months we return to this issue. We urge the EU not to see this as a tragedy and relate to it with understanding for our economic difficulties," he said.
Yanukovich had been due to sign the agreement with the EU at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in a week's time, but came under pressure by Russia, Ukraine's biggest trading partner and main source of gas, to back off the deal and join a Moscow-led customs union.
No details have yet emerged of what deal was struck between Yanukovich and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who on Friday savored a diplomatic triumph over the 28-member western bloc.
But it seemed certain that it involved economic benefits, including a cheaper price for gas, which Kiev has been seeking for four years, and possibly loans.
The opposition, which has been accusing Yanukovich for weeks of preparing to pull out of the deal with the EU, saw his motivation in self-enrichment and his determination to secure a second term in power in 2015.
"Viktor Yanukovich personally got from Russia a guarantee of being elected for a second term in 2015 and being recognized (by Moscow)," said Arseny Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader and former economy minister.1
Putin meanwhile accused the EU of applying blackmail and pressure on Ukraine to secure the deal in Vilnius.
"We have heard threats from our European partners towards Ukraine, up to and including promoting the holding of mass protests," he told a news conference in St Petersburg.
"This is pressure and this is blackmail. Whether the Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership will give in to such blackmail will be clear only in the next few days."
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was careful to keep the hand of cooperation extended to Ukraine, in case Kiev changes its mind down the line.
"We believe that the future for Ukraine lies in a strong relationship with the EU," she said in a statement." We stand firm in our commitment to the people of Ukraine, who would have been the main beneficiaries of the agreement."
Tymoshenko, who ran Yanukovich close for the presidency in an election in February 2010, was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office after a trial Western governments say was political.
Her future now looks uncertain if a two-man EU diplomatic mission which had been negotiating terms for her release in the run-up to the expected signing in Vilnius is now wound up.
She is suffering from back trouble and former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Irish politician Pat Cox have been trying to secure her release to go to Germany for medical treatment as a compromise.
Kwasniewski said on Thursday: "Our mission is ending without a signing."
Parliament, dominated by Yanukovich's allies, has failed to pass legislation allowing for her to be released. And now, since the deal with the EU has fallen through, there seems little reason for Yanukovich to allow his fiercest challenger out.
Cox and Kwasniewski visited Tymoshenko on Friday in hospital in the town of Kharkiv.
An EU source said: "She thanked them for their support. (She said) considering the circumstances, the mission achieved as much as possible. She was quite emotional."
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Serhiy Karazy, Nataly Zinets in Kiev, Adrian Croft in Brussels; Editing by Giles Elgood)
- Politics & Government
- Foreign Policy
- Yulia Tymoshenko
- Viktor Yanukovich