EU leaders failed on Friday in last-ditch attempts to persuade Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s president, to sign a far-reaching agreement that would integrate his country more closely with western Europe.
Mr Yanukovich said he could not sign the trade and political association deals because of Ukraine’s “complex economic situation” due to pressure from Russia. His refusal came despite appeals from the 28 EU heads of government and José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.
Several thousand protesters, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate in Kiev calling for Mr Yanukovich to sign the deal. Protest leaders claimed Ukrainian authorities were bringing groups of pro-government youths into the capital, expressing fears they could stage provocations against the protesters, with demonstrations expected to swell later on Friday.
At a summit in the Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, EU leaders insisted the way remained open for Ukraine to sign the deal. But it appeared even a mooted joint declaration that Kiev would reopen talks, with the aim of signing a deal at a summit in the Ukrainian capital in March, would not be signed.
François Hollande, the French president, told reporters “the partnership remains open, but it is up to the Ukrainians first to want it”. He said the EU was not prepared to “pay” Ukraine to sign the deal, by offering more financial support than Brussels had already pledged.
Video footage released by Lithuania, holder of the EU presidency, showed an uncomfortable-looking Mr Yanukovich meeting Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Mr Barroso on Thursday night.
Ms Merkel can be heard telling Mr Yanukovich in English, “Nice to see you here. But we expected more.”
Mr Yanukovich is heard replying: “The economic situation in our country is very complicated . . . we had very big threats.”
“I wanted you to listen to me. I’ve been alone for three and a half years,” the Ukrainian president continues. “In very unequal conditions, with a very strong Russia, I was one on one.”
But EU officials on the margins of the Vilnius meeting began shifting blame for the failure to sign the Ukraine agreement from Russia on to Mr Yanukovich himself, saying the president had been too intent on playing Moscow off against Brussels.
“I think he didn’t really want to sign with either” the EU or Russia, one senior EU politician said. “He just wanted free money.”
The summit salvaged some success for its “Eastern Partnership” programme, designed to export democratic values into ex-Soviet republics, with Moldova and Georgia initialling agreements with the EU. Initialling texts is the final stage before signing, which is expected to happen next year.
Mr Yanukovich watched the signing ceremony with the Moldovan and Georgian leaders from the end of the second row, where he sat next to the foreign minister of autocratic neighbour Belarus, which has played little part in the Eastern Partnership process.
The summit came eight days after Ukraine’s government surprised the EU by suspending preparations to sign the deal and said it would reopen talks on deepening relations with Russia.
The move followed months of pressure from Moscow, including bans on a range of Russian goods and disruptions to cross-border trade, as well as two closed-door meetings this month between Mr Yanukovich and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
An adviser to the Ukrainian president, however, insisted it was still possible to sign the EU deal in March. He said he hoped a working group could sort out “all contradictory questions” with Brussels.