KIEV: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was to return to Kiev from a China trip on Friday, to a country embroiled in its worst political crisis in a decade over his government’s refusal to sign a pact for closer links to the European Union (EU).
During his three-day absence, pro-EU demonstrators have dug in, keeping up a blockade of top government buildings and occupying a central Kiev square, while the United States (US) and EU officials have voiced support for their struggle.
At the same time, Russia—which wants to draw Ukraine into a customs union for ex-Soviet states—has hardened its tone, denouncing Western “hysteria” over the issue.
Verbal sparring intensified on Thursday in Kiev, during a meeting there of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
“We urge the Ukrainian government to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom,” US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said.
“This is Ukraine’s moment: to meet the aspirations of the people, or to disappoint them and risk descending into chaos and violence.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to portray the crisis as overblown.
“This situation is linked to the hysterics that certain Europeans went into over the fact that Ukraine, using its sovereign right, decided at this stage not to sign certain agreements that Ukrainian experts and authorities found disadvantageous,” the Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying in Kiev.
There was some suggestion Yanukovych could visit Moscow on his way back from China. His prime minister, Mykola Azarov, said last weekend such a stopover would happen “without a question.”
But on Thursday neither Yanukovych’s office nor Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman confirmed that would happen.
Yanukovych himself only issued a statement after meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping and signing $8-billion worth of bilateral deals that the two discussed “stepping up our strategic partnership.”