Ukraine's Yanukovich vetoes EU push to save trade deal
Police stand guard as opposition supporters roll a banner with the portrait of jailed former prime minister Tymoshenko after a rally in front of the Parliament building in Kiev (GLEB GARANICH, REUTERS / November 13, 2013)
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VILNIUS (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich vetoed last-minute attempts by the European Union to rescue a trade deal that could have been signed at a summit on Friday and would have signaled a historic shift away from Russia, EU diplomats said.
Under pressure from Moscow, Yanukovich abandoned plans last week to sign the agreement, preferring closer ties with Ukraine's former Soviet master and dealing a blow to EU efforts to build closer relations with its eastern neighbors.
As EU leaders gathered in Vilnius on Thursday for a summit with six countries in eastern Europe and the southern Caucasus, officials from the EU and Ukraine tried to work out a last-minute compromise that could have allowed Yanukovich to sign the trade deal in the near future.
EU diplomats told Reuters a preliminary understanding had been reached, but Yanukovich had refused to sign off on it.
"I see this as a defeat for Ukraine," said President Dalia Grybauskaite of ex-Soviet Lithuania, host of the summit. "The current choice of the Ukrainian leadership means putting limits on the Ukrainian people's chances of achieving a better life."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both blamed Yanukovich for the failure of the talks, but said the door remained open.
Donald Tusk, prime minister of Poland, one of Ukraine's neighbors, said that "history did not come to an end in Vilnius", and both sides would keep working on closer ties.
In comments reported on his website on Friday, Yanukovich said Ukraine still intended to sign the agreement in the future, but for now needed a financial aid package from the West to help its fragile economy move closer to the EU.
He said this should include macroeconomic assistance, re-establishing a working relationship with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on "acceptable terms", a review of EU limitations on some Ukrainian exports, and help with modernizing Ukraine's vast gas pipeline network.
He had detailed Ukraine's economic woes to EU leaders on Thursday, citing the high prices it has to pay for Russian gas.
Yanukovich had also called an earlier EU offer of 600 million euros ($800 million) in aid "humiliating".
Merkel said the EU would re-export natural gas to Ukraine, which is dependent on Russia for its energy supplies, if Ukraine wanted it - although Europe's current ability to do so for long periods is limited.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Ukraine's call for three-way talks on the trade pact between Ukraine, the EU and Russia was unacceptable.
"The times of limited sovereignty are over in Europe," he told a news conference after the summit.
Yanukovich's decision to walk away from the EU deal has brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of Kiev.
Silence fell over about 400 pro-Europe protesters in Kiev's Independence Square when news was announced from Vilnius that Ukraine had not signed the agreement. Demonstrators then began chanting "Coward! Coward!" - a reference to Yanukovich.
"I have no words," said Yuri Litonchenko, 29, wiping away tears. "I wanted our country to get out from under the thumb of the people running it."
By the end of the day, the numbers in the square, theatre of the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 that thwarted Yanukovich's first presidential bid, had swelled to nearly 10,000.