The Ukrainian government last week stunned many of its own citizens and much of the European Union when it announced it was suspending association talks with the bloc. The decision led to mass protests that continued Monday in which demonstrators clashed with riot police outside the government building. One protester was injured.
"The scuffle follows a protest in the heart of Kiev Sunday that was the biggest since the 2004 Orange Revolution that helped bring a pro-Western government to power. Tens of thousands of people protested against President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to snub a potentially historic deal with the European Union and focus on ties with Moscow, after immense pressure from Russia.
"Yanukovych's government suddenly announced last week that it was halting its plans to sign the political association and trade deal with the 28-member EU in order to boost ties with Russia instead, after several years of preparations and firm promises from Yanukovych that he would sign it."
Sunday's protests drew an estimated 100,000 people.
The government says the former Soviet republic cannot survive a trade war with Russia. Moscow banned some Ukrainian products, as NPR's Corey Flintoff reported, and warned of further trade barriers in the event of a deal with the EU.
Writing in the Financial Times on Sunday, former President Viktor Yushchenko urged the EU to help Ukraine "escape from Russia."
"It is up to Europe to answer whether it needs Ukraine or not," he wrote. "Will Europe continue to support our transformation as an independent and democratic state, or will it let Ukraine fully recede into a secondary state-like formation under Russia? The EU has tremendous power to influence the outcome."
In a joint statement, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Tompuy said Ukraine's short-term political considerations should not override the deal's long-term benefits. They added that they were aware of the "external pressure" Ukraine was experiencing.
"We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect," they said.
Ukraine is just one of the former Soviet states where such a drama is being played out. Moldova and Georgia are also involved in association talks with the EU, and are facing similar threats from Moscow. As the AP notes in a separate story:
"Moscow has been issuing threats of economic punishment to keep the three nations within its sphere of influence. The results are mixed: Moldova and Georgia plan to go ahead with the agreement, while Ukraine stunned many of its own people last week by pulling out.
"The stakes are high, with the economic and political future of some 55 million people — 46 million in Ukraine alone — hanging in the balance.
"For the countries at the tipping point, the plans to embrace the West in a pact that could eventually open the way to EU membership is producing political foment rarely seen since they became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991."
President Yakunovych, who'd previous said he'd sign the deal with the EU, hasn't commented on the latest development. But Prime Minister Mykola Azarov defended the decision, calling the EU's economic aid package a "pittance."