Demonstrators protesting against Ukraine’s decision to back away from signing a historic deal with the European Union have rallied in the capital Kiev again after reports of an unannounced meeting between the president and his Russian counterpart.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday, sparking fears that the two countries had reached a deal on economic co-operation that would trump the EU pact.
On Saturday, thousands of people backing Western integration braved swirling winds and a heavy snowfall to maintain control of the capital’s iconic Independence Square for the seventh successive day.
“Why did he need this agreement in Sochi? It is not in the interests of the fate of the country,” Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of three main leaders of the opposition protests, told crowds gathered on Independence Square under driving snow.
“He is only interested in his own personal fate,” Yatsenyuk said. “He needs money for the survival of his regime. We demand that he and [Prime Minister Mykola] Azarov come out and tell us what’s happening.”
Russian news agencies quoted Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying that “the question of Ukraine’s possibly joining the customs union was not discussed in Sochi”. A Russian-led customs union is one of the issues driving the protests.
Details about the meeting were sketchy but Peskov said the presidents paid special attention to “cooperation in the energy sphere”.
Protesters digging in
Faced with $17bn in gas bills and debt repayments next year, Ukraine is seeking cheaper gas imports and possibly credits from Russia to stave off a looming balance of payments crisis.
Those bills are about equal to the the heavily-depleted reserves now held by Ukraine’s central bank.
Russia has pressured Ukraine to join a trade bloc, which also includes former Societ states Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Protesters have denounced attempts to bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit and contend Yanukovich aims to sell out Ukraine to Russia. The demonstrations are the largest since the 2004-05 Orange Revolution.
With the first snowfall of winter, protesters on Independence Square were digging in with tents and supplies of food and clothing. Men in construction helmets control passage in and out of the square through barricades of plywood, park benches and the dismembered branches of a giant artificial Christmas tree.
Police have threatened to eject protesters occupying public buildings, including Kiev’s City Hall. A police crackdown last Saturday triggered outrage in Kiev and helped bring out some 350,000 the following day.