KIEV: Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych held unannounced talks in Russia Friday with Vladimir Putin on a new strategic partnership treaty with Moscow, a move that risks further galvanizing mass pro-Western demonstrations against his rule.
Yanukovych was also forced to delay a trip to Malta planned for next week amid the biggest protests in the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution which were sparked by his rejection of a historic EU agreement.
The president’s official website said that the meeting at Putin’s Black Sea retreat in Sochi focused on “trade and economic cooperation ... and preparation for the future treaty on strategic partnership.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the talks – the fourth between the pair in less than two months – concerned “current bilateral issues.”
Protesters have since Sunday controlled Kiev’s main Independence Square in response to Yanukovych’s decision to bow to Russian pressure and reject a broad deal with the European Union that would have pulled Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit for the first time.
Thousands have surrounded government ministries and held pickets outside Parliament where opposition deputies have paralyzed work. Dozens of demonstrators have also occupied Kiev’s city hall and renamed it “revolution headquarters.”
The authorities Thursday gave the protesters five days to halt their blockade of government buildings or face forced expulsion – a move that has raise fears of a repeat of clashes witnessed last weekend.
The political crisis has also dealt a heavy blow to Ukraine’s already-struggling economy amid growing speculation that Kiev may fail to service billions of dollars in debt and other payments that come due by the end of 2014.
Yanukovych – his economic assistance options dwindling with the rejection of the EU deal – met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and other Communist Party leaders during a four-day visit that was criticized heavily by the protest leaders.
It remained unclear if he had received hope of the urgent financial support that Ukraine requires for its ailing economy.
About 5,000 people occupied the central Independence Square Friday amid signs from officials they were prepared for talks but not the protesters’ main demand of the government’s dismissal and snap presidential and Parliament polls.
Many protesters said they have been emboldened by the strong support given by U.S. and EU officials during a two-day meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that ended in Kiev Friday.
United States Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland urged Kiev “to listen to the voices of its people” while German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle personally visited Independence Square.
The West’s blunt response has outraged Moscow because it contests Kremlin efforts to maintain influence over former Soviet territories – a region many Russians call “the near abroad.”
“How would our German partners feel if the Russian foreign minister went to some gathering that was being held against German rules,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev demanded in reference to Westerwelle’s visit to Independence Square.
But the idea of Yanukovych discussing a broader agreement with Moscow so soon after abandoning Brussels left protest leaders seething and warning of even larger protests.
“If Yanukovych tried to sign some agreement [with Russia] he will see a wave of protests that are of a completely different scale,” said Parliament’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) opposition Party leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Ukraine’s jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko has called on Washington and the European Union to impose sanctions against Yanukovych and his family.
She halted a hunger strike launched Friday in protest at the rejection of the EU deal on Nov. 25, her daughter Yevgenia Tymoshenko said after visiting her mother.
“She said that today, on the people’s request, she would end the hunger strike,” Yevgenia Tymoshenko said.
Tymoshenko’s Party chief Yatsenyuk and his two opposition protest co-leaders – the nationalist Oleg Tyagnybok and world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko of the UDAR (Punch) Party – have demanded the resignation of the government and snap presidential elections.