European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton says Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych "intends to sign" a trade and cooperation agreement with the EU that he rejected last month, setting off massive anti-government protests.
Ashton spoke to reporters in Brussels Thursday after holding talks with Yanukovych in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. She said it is clear that the short-term economic and financial issues Ukraine faces can be alleviated by signing the association agreement, bringing in fresh investment from EU nations.
"Look, Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement. What he talked about were the short-term economic issues that the country faces," she said. "And it is my view that those challenges, which are real, can be addressed by the support that not only comes from the European Union institutions, but actually by showing that he has a serious economic plan in signing the association agreement also will help to bring in the kind of investment that he needs."
Meanwhile, anti-government protests continue, with demonstrators calling for closer ties with the European Union.
After riot police converged on thousands of protesters in Kyiv's Independence Square Wednesday, the United States denounced the police actions and said it is considering its response, including possible sanctions.
Opposition leaders in Kyiv have rejected a call by Yanukovych for talks aimed at ending the protests against his recent move to step back from the EU trade deal, in favor of boosting ties with Russia.
Yanukovych issued an invitation late Wednesday for a national dialogue with religious, civic and opposition leaders, while urging protesters encamped in central Kyiv to avoid "confrontation and ultimatums."
In rejecting the president's call, opposition leaders, including Punch Party head Vitaly Klitschko, have called for the release of prisoners detained since the protests began, as well as the resignation of Yanukovych and his government.
"On the one hand the president says he wants to sit at the roundtable, but on the other hand he sends out the police to disperse the people, and it is contrary to all proposals," Klitschkko said. "Our demands have not changed, I want to say it again."
Klitschko spoke at a briefing with opposition leaders Thursday, a day after police retreated from a huge protest encampment in Kyiv's Independence Square after trying to dismantle a makeshift tent city erected by swarms of demonstrators.
Ukraine's Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said they are requesting $27.5 billion in financial assistance from the European Union before it will sign an association agreement with the 28-nation bloc.
For its part, Russia is seeking to form a trade bloc of former Soviet republics and satellite countries to rival the European Union, and has in recent months exerted strong economic pressure on its impoverished neighbor to scuttle the EU deal.
In his annual address to parliament Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was hopeful that an agreement on Ukraine's political crisis would soon be reached, adding that Russia was not forcing Ukraine to join their customs union.
"We are not imposing anything on anyone, but if our friends are willing to work jointly with us, we are prepared to continue this work at the level of experts," he said.