Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych heads to Russia on Tuesday for talks that the opposition fears will turn him further away from a deal with the EU, as he faces demands to reshuffle his cabinet.
Ukraine’s ruling party on Monday called for a sweeping cabinet overhaul, heaping pressure on Yanukovych after a month of massive protests sparked by his rejection of a historic deal with the EU in favour of economic ties with historic master Russia.
Yanukovych will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday facing weighty decisions over his country’s future that have sparked the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet nation since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych aims to signs a series of deals with Putin that include an agreement for cheaper Russian natural gas shipments and a multi-billion-dollar loan aimed at righting Ukraine’s wobbly economy.
Demonstrators fear that Yanukovych will put Ukraine on a path towards future membership in a Russian-led Customs Union that Putin hopes to build into a rival to the 28-nation EU bloc.
The government denies that a Customs Union deal will be signed on Tuesday — a promise that has failed to allay the opposition’s suspicions.
Nationalist opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said his Svoboda (Freedom) party had learned that Putin planned to reward Yanukovych for delaying the EU deal’s signature with a $5.0-billion (3.6-billion euro) loan.
He said Russia will also lower the gas price it charges the Ukrainian state gas company to $200-$300 per thousand cubic metres from more than $400 now.
“That is the baggage Yanukovych is taking with him to Moscow,” Tyagnibok told reporters.
Kremlin adviser Andrei Belousov confirmed that Russia may give Ukraine a much-needed loan but provided no other details.
Courted by both the EU and Moscow, Yanukovych appears to be hedging his bets.
The embattled president — whose government last week asked for up to $20 billion from Brussels in return for signing the trade and political association pact — has assured demonstrators that he eventually planned to sign the Association Agreement and sent a delegation to Brussels.
But the bloc abruptly suspended the partnership talks on Sunday after accusing the Ukrainian leadership of being disingenuous.
In Brussels, EU ministers on Monday reiterated the bloc’s willingness to strike a deal under the original terms agreed last month.
“If there’s a clear message from Kiev we’re ready to sign tomorrow,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Ahead of the meeting at the Kremlin, the EU ministers also held “open and frank” talks with their Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in which they made clear that Ukraine signing the deal “would not have a detrimental effect on Russia in any way.”
There are “no contradictions between possibly accepting this partnership agreement and entertaining good relations with Russia,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Lavrov himself emerged from the talks saying there was “a common agreement that everyone should respect the sovereignty of each nation” and “allow people to make a free choice”.
On Monday Yanukovych’s Regions Party demanded Prime Minister Mykola Azarov carry out a “90 percent” overhaul of his cabinet, ruling party lawmaker Anna German said.
The move appeared to be a bid to appease protesters after the first direct talks between the president and three main opposition leaders failed on Friday to defuse Ukraine’s deepest crisis in a decade.
The pro-EU opposition dismissed the moves as half-measures, demanding Azarov’s resignation as well as early presidential and parliamentary polls.
German said Azarov’s resignation had not been discussed.
But opposition leaders appeared implacable after the Sunday gathering of nearly 300,000 supporters on Kiev’s iconic Independence Square — the heart of the 2004 pro-democracy revolt.
“We believe that Viktor Yanukovych has made no step toward the resignation of the government and we are awaiting the president’s decision regarding this cabinet,” said protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The president’s parliamentary representative Yuriy Miroshnychenko said the details and timing of any reshuffle have yet to be hammered out.
“An emotional conversation based on principles was held. We have to take the decisive steps necessary to solve the problems,” he told reporters. AFP