Saturday, November 30, 2013

Jeers and cheers in Kiev's streets as Yanukovich spurns EU deal

REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko
By Thomas Grove Nov 29 ,2013

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to walk away from a deal that would have aligned his former Soviet republic more closely with the European Union sparked both anger and applause on the streets of Kiev on Friday.

A sea of blue and gold, the colors of both the EU and Ukrainian flags, swept through the capital as people joined rival protests - one to celebrate closer ties with Russia, another to lament what they saw as a lost chance.

"Europe was the way out of the mess we're in, the way out of the corruption that has overwhelmed our country," said Andrey Dobrolet, 41, a lawyer.

"But now we see the real colors of the people in power," he said, after an announcement that Yanukovich was leaving a summit in Vilnius without the free trade agreement that had been months in negotiation.

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Independence Square, theatre of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 that thwarted Yanukovich's first presidential bid, again became a focus for protests - though in small numbers - when Kiev said on Sunday that it was turning its back on the EU deal and boosting trade ties with its former Soviet master, Russia.

Some wiped away tears on Friday, huddling around oil barrels where wood, window frames and crates were being burned to keep protesters warm.

"I expected this, but the people will continue to fight and tensions will continue," said Sergei Bandar, 61, a pensioner.

As pro-EU protesters sang Ukraine's national anthem, the slow melody was interrupted by a rival rally organized on another square some 200 meters away, where people cheered Yanukovich and his decision to strengthen ties with Russia.

Here, on European Square, thousands of people, many of them bussed in from Yanukovich loyalist areas in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, gathered near a hastily constructed stage, where singers sang popular songs and speakers warned of the dangers of European integration.

"If we had signed, we would have opened our borders and killed our own manufacturers," said Anatoliy Bliznyuk, a parliamentarian from Yanukovich's Regions Party.

The two rallies reflected the linguistic and cultural split between western Ukraine, where support for the EU had been strong, and the predominantly Russian-speaking east, from which Yanukovich himself hails.

The stage-managed look of the meeting led to accusations that the attendees had been paid to show up, a practice not uncommon in Ukraine, where the average monthly salary is around $400. No one was willing to speak to a Reuters journalist.

"No one can tell us what to do. We will build our own Europe in Ukraine. Are we worse than Europe?" Artyom Silchenko, a student, told a state television channel.

Despite the proximity of the two demonstrations, there were no reports of violence between protesters. But local media said five journalists had been beaten up by 'sportsmen', code for thugs enforcing the government's will on the street.

Yanukovich denies using any such tactics.

Some on Independence Square took heart from the fact that Yanukovich said he was only suspending plans to sign the trade deal, not cancelling them altogether.

"I'm an optimist, we are located right next to Europe, and we have elections in two years' time," said Roman Dashchaksky, 27. "Sooner or later, integration is inevitable."

(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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