Russia’s Vladimir Putin told EU leaders on Tuesday to refrain from criticising Moscow in light of their stalled trade agreement with Ukraine, which admitted on Monday that it had come under pressure from its former Soviet ruler not to sign the deal.
Kiev announced last week it was halting efforts to integrate with the European Union, saying the economy could not afford to sacrifice trade with Russia and would rather focus on restoring ties with Moscow.
The EU accused Russia of pressuring its smaller neighbour not to sign the deal.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said they "strongly disapproved" of Russia's actions, prompting Putin to urge European leaders to tone down their criticism.
Vladimir Putin stated that a free trade deal between the EU and Ukraine would have been a "major threat" to the Russian economy.
"I ask our friends in Brussels, my personal good friends in the European Commission, to hold back on the sharp words," Putin said during a visit to Italy on Tuesday, adding: “Do we have to choke entire sectors of our economy for them to like us?"
EU officials remain hopeful nonetheless that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will change his mind in time for the meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, which begins on Thursday. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets to urge him to sign the agreement, in Kiev’s largest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Yanukovich said he would consider signing the free trade accord, seen as a key step towards EU membership, under new terms.
"As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will be talking about signing," Yanukovich said in a televised interview.
Yanukovich called for calm on Monday after weekend protests saw demonstrators in favour of the pact clash with riot police.
In a video address to the nation on Monday, Yanukovich said Ukraine's battered economy could not afford the free trade deal with the EU.
But that did not appear to convince his opponents, with more than 20,000 protesting in the western city of Lviv and around 7,000 taking to the streets of Kiev on Tuesday.
"We just have one demand for Yanukovich: a one-hour flight, Vilnius, a pen and the signing of the agreement," opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at the rally.
The opposition movement was bolstered on Sunday by jailed opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, who began a hunger strike in support of the cause, urging Ukrainians to pressure the leadership into signing the pact.
Ukraine's decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko, an EU condition for the deal.
Washington weighed in on the dispute, firmly backing those calling for closer Ukrainian ties with the European Union.
"We support, of course, the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to achieve a prosperous European democracy. European integration is the surest course to economic growth and strengthening Ukraine's democracy," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
While not explicitly backing the street protests, she added "we continue to encourage all Ukrainians to express their views on Ukraine's future in a constructive manner".
Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told reporters on Tuesday that talks with Moscow on restoring closer trade cooperation would begin next month.
Russia wants Ukraine to join its Customs Union, which already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ahead of the European Union's two-day Eastern Partnership summit, Russia had tightened customs controls with Ukraine and threatened retaliation if Ukraine signed the deal.
As Kiev intensified talks with Brussels in recent months, Russia restricted imports of Ukrainian steel, chocolate and other products, which Azarov said had hit exports by $6.5 billion.
On Tuesday Russia held talks with Ukrainian officials to lift the restrictions.
Poland's Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported the Vilnius summit would adopt a veiled warning to Russia not to interfere in its neighbours' affairs.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)
Date created : 2013-11-27