Ukraine protesters reinforced their positions in Kiev on Friday as they prepared for another mass rally to pressure the president to turn the country away from historical master Moscow toward the EU.
Experts say time is running out for President Viktor Yanukovych to make a decision on a future direction for his politically volatile nation, which is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
He can either sign a deal with the European Union that would put his ex-Soviet nation on track to eventually joining the bloc, or join a Moscow-led Customs Union, which Russia sees as a future alternative to the EU.
Analysts say either choice would further divide Ukraine and jeopardise Yanukovych’s chances for re-election in 2015.
Yanukovych’s decision to scrap the EU pact last month after pressure from Moscow plunged the country into its most acute political crisis in a decade, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets in Kiev and western Ukraine for the past three weeks.
The embattled 63-year-old president appears to be biding his time, sending a senior delegation to Brussels on Thursday while at the same time preparing for yet another meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
In a bid to ease tension, a top Ukrainian minister said Kiev was renewing preparations for the EU deal.
“Today we’re renewing preparations for the signing of an agreement,” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov said after talks with EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fuele late on Thursday.
“We are here to overcome the crisis and prepare the signing of the agreement.”
Fuele for his part said the EU would help Ukraine implement the association agreement if Kiev clearly committed to the deal, and would help the cash-strapped country obtain an IMF loan.
Putin, for his part, said on Thursday that Ukraine was still welcome to join Moscow’s project.
“We are not imposing anything on anyone but if our friends want joint work we are ready for a continuation for that work at expert level,” Putin said.
‘People are coming and coming’
Yanukovych is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday – their fourth meeting in about two months – and ahead of the encounter, the opposition has called for another mass rally in central Kiev over the weekend.
“The main item on our agenda is to prevent President Yanukovych from joining the Customs Union during his visit to Russia,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded into Kiev’s Independence Square last week and on Friday the protesters were busy enlarging their encampment beyond the plaza to fit newcomers.
“We will be pitching new tents. There is no longer enough space on the Maidan,” opposition lawmaker Andriy Parubiy said, referring to the square by its Ukrainian name.
More tents will be put up on Kreshchatyk, Kiev’s main avenue that like the adjacent square was also the epicentre of Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
“People are coming and coming, we do not know where to put them up,” Yuri Kirilenko, a 33-year-old protester from the southern city of Kherson, said.
“We will stand up for our ideas.”
Police said nearly 4,000 were on the square on Friday morning.
In the early hours of Wednesday riot police tried to dislodge the protesters, but the bid failed after the ranks of demonstrators swelled.
They have now fortified their positions by sealing the square with barricades made of sandbags stuffed with snow, reinforced with iron bars and topped with barbed wire and the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine and the EU.
The United States has threatened sanctions after the latest raid, in which several dozen were wounded.