Ukraine will restart talks with EU, president says

UKRAINIAN security forces on Wednesday retreated from an overnight face-off with protesters after moving in to clear a protest camp, following President Viktor Yanukovych's promise to restart talks on an association agreement with the European Union.

"We tasked the government to accelerate this work," Mr Yanukovych said during a televised roundtable discussion on Tuesday.

The overnight moves by hundreds of black-clad police with visors and helmets, as reported by news agencies, were the biggest attempt the authorities have taken so far to disperse weeks of protests.

It was Mr Yanukovych's decision to pull out of the talks with the EU and turn to Russia for economic assistance and political support that prompted the protests, Ukraine's biggest since the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004.

Mr Yanukovych hopes that by hinting at the possibility of a resumption of the talks with Europe, he would overcome the gravest challenge to his rule.

But this apparent concession may have come too late to calm down the sharply polarised country. And it is unlikely to affect the real game which will decide Ukraine's future: the diplomatic showdown between Russia and the West, both of which wish to include Ukraine within their sphere of influence.

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the nation of 46 million has been evenly divided between residents of the Russian-speaking eastern part who look to Moscow as a source of stability and those, mainly from the Ukrainian-speaking west, who want to join the EU and leave the orbit of their former Soviet master.

Previous Ukrainian leaders sought to placate both sides of the electorate by sounding hopeful on relations with the EU, while also remaining friendly towards Russia on which Ukraine depends for trade and vital supplies of oil and gas.

But Mr Yanukovych, a native Russian speaker from the eastern part, has broken with this tradition by rebuffing the EU, opting instead for closer political ties with Moscow.

Mr Yanukovych claims that his choice does not preclude future deals with the EU and is simply a matter of necessity: "We cannot talk about the future without talking about restoring trade relations with Russia," he said on Tuesday. But opposition leaders accuse him of "betraying" Ukraine's independence.

Caught unawares, the opposition to Mr Yanukovych initially struggled to get itself heard.

But that problem is resolved: Independence Square in the heart of Kiev, the capital, is under the control of protesters, and about half a million demonstrators braved sub-zero temperatures to take part in a mass rally over the weekend.

Mr Yanukovych, who has no intention of resigning, hopes to sit out this challenge.

His opponents are a ill-fitting alliance between the Fatherland party of imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the ultra-nationalist Freedom Party and the curiously-named "Punch" political movement led by heavyweight world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.

It is highly unlikely that this motley crew can form an alternative government. And, as Ukraine's famously harsh winters start biting - night-time temperatures regularly drop to about 10 deg C below freezing now - the chances are high that the demonstrators will simply disperse.

But even if protests die down, that will not affect the tug-of-war developing between the EU and Russia over who will influence Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Kiev earlier this week, ostensibly to warn the authorities against the potential use of force against protesters, but in practice in order to work out whether the Ukrainian decision to abandon talks with the EU is permanent.

Both Ms Ashton and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle visited the capital's main square in order to talk to demonstrators, the nearest any Western senior official came to endorsing the protest movement.

Predictably, Russia's leaders are livid. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have accused Mr Westerwelle of "meddling in domestic Ukrainian affairs".

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has ordered his government to rush through the necessary legislation in order to entice Ukraine into a full Customs union with Russia, the first step towards Ukraine's permanent alliance with Moscow.

Mr Putin is drawing comfort from one fact: that throughout this geopolitical showdown, the Americans, who no longer have a stake in Ukraine, have remained bystanders.

So, with the US out of the way and the Europeans as clumsy as ever, Mr Putin may be justified in proclaiming victory in Ukraine: single-handedly, he has scored one of his country's biggest strategic manoeuvres by drawing Ukraine back into Moscow's sphere of influence.

Still, Russia would be well-advised not to rejoice too soon, for the EU is refusing to accept the Ukrainian "no" as the definitive answer, and is keeping its offer of partnership on the table - just in case the Ukrainian President does change his mind and turn back to Europe, perhaps after he has pocketed the Russian cash.

Jonathan.Eyal@gmail.com


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