Protesters express outrage as EU suspends talks with Ukraine
Thousands hold ground in push to bring country closer to West, as protest backer US Senator John McCain meets with Ukraine leaders
Nearly 300,000 outraged Ukrainians braved freezing temperatures to demand closer Western integration after the European Union abruptly suspended historic partnership talks because of the government’s continued courtship of Russia.
The ex-Soviet nation of 46 million has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug of war since President Viktor Yanukovych’s shock decision last month to ditch a landmark European Union association agreement and seek closer ties with its traditional masters at the Kremlin.
The EU suspended association talks with Ukraine yesterday as more than 200,000 protesters massed in the heart of Kiev demanding that the government recommit itself to the West.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele announced in a surprise tweet that the 28-nation bloc was halting talks with Kiev until it received a firmer commitment from President Viktor Yanukovych that Ukraine was serious about the deal.
The Ukraine has been at the heart of a furious diplomatic tug-of-war since Yanukovych's surprise decision last month to ditch a landmark EU agreement and seek closer ties with Russia.
A Ukrainian government spokesman quickly responded that Kiev remained serious about the negotiations and did not treat Fuele's tweet as the formal position of the bloc.
However Prime Minister Mykola Azarov insisted that European integration was still a priority for his country.
“We have been told the doors to the EU are open to us as well as those of the Customs Union" of ex-Soviet nations that Russia wants Ukraine to join, he told a local television channel.
“It is very good that we can choose and we have chosen European integration.”
Azarov's spokesman Vitaliy Lukyanenko told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency: "The government of Ukraine is resolute about continuing negotiations about the conditions on which the Association Agreement can be implemented.
"Kiev will only examine official EU statements about the negotiations and only respond to them."
Yanukovych is due in Moscow tomorrow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that protesters occupying central Kiev's Independence Square fear could result in an even firmer alliance between the two neighbours.
Demonstrators have planned a mass rally to coincide with Yanukovych's meeting with Putin, and were reassured on Sunday of continued US backing by outspoken Republican Senator John McCain.
"To all Ukraine, America stands with you," McCain called out to the cheering sea of people who chanted "thank you" in English in return.
"People of Ukraine this is your moment... The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you."
McCain later held a meeting with Yanukovych, the presidency said without revealing details.
McCain is the latest of a string of European and American dignitaries to tour the sprawling protest camp, prompting Russia to accuse the West of excessive involvement.
Posting a photograph of tens of thousands filling the square on Saturday evening for a concert dedicated to the protest movement by Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, McCain called it "an incredible show of patriotism".
"I am proud of the people of Ukraine and their steadfast efforts for democracy," McCain said after meeting Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara. McCain then met opposition leaders - ex-boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnybog - who are calling for Yanukovych's government to resign and for early elections to be held.
"I heard he [McCain] was here. It's nice that they know of us, that they remember us. It is great that they support us," said protester Volodimir Tarabanov, 28, who works for a delivery company in Kiev.
On Sunday evening, around 5,000 people stayed on the square, huddled around braziers or in canvas tents as temperatures fell to zero degrees Celsius.
Protesters were eagerly awaiting McCain’s appearance onstage on Independence Square when news spread that Fuele had said Brussels was halting talks with Kiev after an inconclusive Friday meeting.