KIEV, Nov 27 – Russia’s president on Tuesday called for European leaders to end their criticism over Ukraine’s decision to delay a key EU pact, as thousands rallied in Kiev in a third day of protests.
Vladimir Putin said a free trade deal between the European Union and Ukraine that was controversially put on hold last week would have been a “major threat” to the Russian economy.
Kiev admitted on Tuesday Moscow had asked it to delay signing the pact, while President Viktor Yanukovych said he would consider signing under new terms.
The Ukrainian government suspended talks last week on the political and free trade accord, seen as a key step towards EU membership, which its Soviet-era master Russia had vehemently opposed.
The shock decision sparked the largest protests to hit the ex-Soviet country since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, with demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital Kiev and western Ukraine.
The EU has accused Russia of pressuring its smaller neighbour not to sign the deal at a summit in Vilnius this week.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso have said they “strongly disapprove” of Russia’s actions, prompting Putin to urge European leaders to tone down their criticism.
“I ask our friends in Brussels, my personal good friends in the European Commission, to hold back on the sharp words,” Putin said during a visit to Italy.
“Do we have to choke entire sectors of our economy for them to like us?”
Third day of protests
Yanukovych has called for calm after at times violent mass demonstrations that have seen riot police fire tear gas at protesters who hurled traffic cones and rocks at security forces.
On Tuesday he said the government wanted better terms for the EU deal.
“As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will be talking about signing,” Yanukovych said in a televised interview.
“When that will be — soon or not so soon — time will tell.”
In a video address to the nation Monday, he said Ukraine’s battered economy could not afford the free trade deal with the EU and urged calm.
But that did not appear to convince his opponents, with more than 20,000 protesting in the western city of Lviv and around 7,000 taking to the streets of Kiev Tuesday.
“We just have one demand for Yanukovych: a one-hour flight, Vilnius, a pen and the signing of the agreement,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at the rally.
Tens of thousands massed in Kiev on Sunday and up to 20,000 on Monday when jailed opposition leader and former premier Yulia Tymoshenko went on hunger strike and urged Ukrainians to pressure the leadership into signing the pact.
Ukraine’s decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko, an EU condition for the deal.
Washington weighed into the dispute, firmly backing those calling for closer Ukrainian ties with the European Union.
“We support, of course, the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to achieve a prosperous European democracy. European integration is the surest course to economic growth and strengthening Ukraine’s democracy,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
While not explicitly backing the street protests, she added “we continue to encourage all Ukrainians to express their views on Ukraine’s future in a constructive manner.”
‘Inappropriate to speak of pressure’
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov confirmed to reporters Russia had suggested putting off the deal and said it was ready for three-way trade talks with Ukraine and the EU.
“Delay the signing of the agreement, we will sit at the table, come to an agreement on something and then sign away,” he quoted the Russians as saying.
Azarov added talks with Moscow on restoring closer trade cooperation would begin next month.
The Russian foreign ministry said Tuesday the Association Agreement would have brought about “a years-long period of economic hardship” for Ukraine.
Russia wants Ukraine to join its Customs Union, which already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ahead of the European Union’s two-day Eastern Partnership summit, which starts Thursday in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, Russia had tightened customs controls with Ukraine and threatened retaliation if Ukraine signed the deal.
On Tuesday Russia, which had banned imports of popular Ukrainian chocolate, held talks with Ukrainian officials to lift the ban.
Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper reported the Vilnius summit would adopt a veiled warning to Russia not to interfere in its neighbours’ affairs.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Interfax news agency “that in this case, it is inappropriate to speak of some sort of pressure”.
EU chair Lithuania said Ukraine could still ink the shelved association agreement at the eleventh hour after Azarov said Yanukovych was expected to attend.