MOSCOW— In the East-West tug of war in Ukraine, Moscow seems to have won an unexpected victory, with Ukraine’s government deciding not to sign a free trade and political association pact with the European Union.
Ukrainians protested Friday their government’s surprise decision to back away from signing a free trade and political association agreement with the EU.
In parliament, pro-Western politicians booed Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and threw papers at him.
After street protests in Kyiv and five other cities, a mass rally is planned for Sunday in the nation’s capital.
Protesters said that Prime Minister Azarov and President Victor Yanukovych had caved in to Russian pressure after recent closed door meetings with their Russian counterparts.
From the Czars to the Soviets, Ukraine’s economy has been tightly intertwined with Russia’s economy. Twenty-two years after Ukraine won independence, Russia remains the nation’s largest foreign investor and foreign trading partner.
With the EU offering Ukraine a free trade agreement, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for an end to what he called “gas communism” with Ukraine. He meant that Ukraine should start paying its nearly $1 billion natural gas bill to Russia or face a cutoff of gas supplies - just as winter starts.
Russia also imposed restrictions on goods imported from Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin defended as giving Ukraine a taste of the economic pain it would feel if it went with the EU.
Because of these restrictions, Ukrainian exports dropped by 25 percent, dragging the economy into a recession. As Ukraine’s economy shrank by 1.3 percent this year, Russia’s economic sanctions heavily hit eastern Ukraine, the government’s power base.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Azarov said that Ukraine’s top priority now is to repair economic relations with Russia.
This comes as a shock to many Ukrainians accustomed to hearing government officials say Ukraine’s future is with Europe.
Ukrainian journalist Sergei Vysotsky criticized his president.
“Are you so weak that you cannot resist Russia?" asked Vysotsky.
In this East-West tug of war over Ukraine, Europe is crying foul.
Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Ukraine is unexpectedly walking away from “the most ambitious agreement the EU has ever offered to a partner country.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to Kremlin. Politics of brutal pressure evidently works.”
In response, President Putin said Friday that European Union countries had threatened to orchestrate anti-Russian protests in Ukraine.
"This is what pressure and blackmail actually is," said Putin.
Next week, Yanukovych is to attend the EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. There, two other former Soviet republics - Moldova and Georgia - are to initial trade pacts with the EU. A third, Armenia, buckled under Russian pressure in September. It agreed to join Moscow’s rival Eurasian Economic Union.
Officially, the EU still maintains its “open doors” policy to Ukraine. EU envoys made 26 trips to Ukraine over the last 18 months.
Now, the European Union may be suffering from Yanukovych fatigue. The EU may decide to wait until Ukraine’s March 2015 presidential elections to see if a truly pro-Western candidate wins.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych has not said he will join Russia’s rival trade pact.
But Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, warned: “The comfortable life of sitting in two chairs is coming to an end.”
Perhaps the biggest question now facing Ukraine is whether its leader can continue to follow a third path, avoiding making a real choice between East and West.