KIEV:Nearly 300,000 outraged Ukrainians braved freezing temperatures Sunday 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 EU association agreement and seek closer ties with its traditional masters at the Kremlin.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele announced in a tweet at the start of Sunday’s rally that the bloc was halting all negotiations until it received “a clear commitment” from Yanukovych that Ukraine was serious about the deal.
“Ukraine: Words and deeds of President and government regarding AssocAgreement further and further apart,” Fuele said.
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.”
Yanukovych is due in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that pro-EU protesters fear could result in an even firmer alliance between the two neighbors.
Demonstrators have planned another huge rally to coincide with Yanukovych’s meeting with Putin on Tuesday. They were warmly reassured of continued US backing on Sunday by Republican Senator John McCain — one of Washington’s staunchest critics of Kremlin rule.
“To all Ukraine, America stands with you,” McCain called out to a cheering sea of people who chanted “Thank you!” in English in return.
McCain later held a meeting with Yanukovych, the presidency said without revealing details.
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 (32 degrees Fahrenheit).