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Yanukovich going to Russia, agency says, as Ukraine protesters defy police

Source: Reuters - Fri, 6 Dec 2013 12:57 PM
Author: Reuters
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* Yanukovich said to head to meeting with Putin from China

* Protesters occupying mayor's office defy police

* New Tymoshenko trial put off

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was flying to Russia on Friday to meet Vladimir Putin, a news agency reported, seeking aid to shore up a creaking economy while protesters back home, opposed to his U-turn away from Europe, defied police.

Quoting an informed source, Ukraine's UNIAN agency said Yanukovich would stop off on his return from a visit to China to hold talks with the Russian president in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Neither the Kremlin nor officials in Kiev would comment immediately on the report of the meeting in Sochi, although the presidential website said Yanukovich had postponed a visit to Malta next week.

If the Sochi meeting is held, the two presidents will talk while several hundred protesters are still massed on Kiev's Independence Square and others continue occupying City Hall, defying a police threat of a harsh crackdown imminently.

Ukraine needs help with $17 billion in debt repayments and Russian gas bills next year. While in Beijing, Yanukovich announced deals which may bring $8 billion in Chinese investment but these are unlikely to meet the economy's short-term cash needs.

But if the two leaders meet in Sochi - which will host the Winter Olympics in February - this will lend ammunition to the Ukrainian opposition. It accuses Yanukovich, who walked away last month from a trade agreement with the European Union, of betraying the national interest by turning the clock back and forging closer economic ties with Ukraine's old Soviet master.

Analysts say Yanukovich's government appears to have struck a bargain with Putin, including for supplies of cheaper Russian gas and possibly credits, in exchange for backing away from the EU deal which would have heralded a historic shift westwards.

Former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition leaders, warned of even bigger protests if Yanukovich signed any agreement with Putin on the Russian-led customs union which Moscow wants Ukraine to join.

"If Yanukovich tries to sign anything with Russia about the customs union it will lead to a bigger wave of protests," Yatsenyuk told journalists.

In Kiev, several hundred demonstrators manned a protest camp on Independence Square as the opposition pressed for the resignation of the government, the release of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and the prosecution of the interior minister for being behind an earlier crackdown on protesters.

Opposition leaders, also including world heavweight boxing champion-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, urged people to turn out for another rally in central Kiev on Sunday.

A separate, smaller, group of protesters milled around in the corridors and staircases of City Hall on Friday despite the strongly-worded threat from police of an imminent crackdown to eject them "harshly".

"We have an evacuation plan," said a 30-year-old trader, who was part of the protesters' security staff and gave his name only as Igor. "If they come at us, we will be able to hold them long enough to be able to get the women, children and the weakest men out of the building," he said.

"We won't let them take the building back. We will resist to the end. We are not hindering anyone. The employees here are working normally," added a 22-year-old Kiev student, also called Igor.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, angered at Kiev's Nov. 21 decision to abandon the trade and integration deal with the EU, poured on to the streets last Sunday after many people - a lot of them young students - were hurt in police action.

Though the government later apologised, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov returned to the attack on Thursday, labelling those holding public buildings like the mayor's office "nazis, extremists and criminals."

He has rejected calls for his dismissal and an opposition call for early elections. His first deputy, Serhiy Arbuzov, who appeared to say on Thursday he supported snap elections, denied this on Friday, saying his words had been "twisted".

The stand-off is taking a toll on the fragile economy. The central bank has twice been forced to support the currency this week and the cost of insuring Ukraine's debt against default has risen further.

Investors fear Ukraine's dwindling currency reserves will make it hard to repay its dollar debts. The state and companies will struggle to repay the $7 billion of debt maturing next year, while doubts are growing as to how long the central bank's meagre reserves can stave off a currency collapse.

"We think that default risk is being seriously under-estimated," Timothy Ash, the head of emerging markets strategy at Standard Bank, said in a note to clients.

The International Monetary Fund has suspended negotiations with Ukraine for a new bail-out programme, leaving the government to hunt for economic relief elsewhere.

UKRAINE'S EAST-WEST GULF

The crisis has exposed a gulf between Ukrainians, many from the West of the country, who hope to move rapidly into the European mainstream, and those mainly from the East who look to Moscow as a guarantor of stability.

It has also reignited Cold War-era antagonism between Russia and Western Europe, even as foreign ministers hold a meeting in Kiev of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a body that includes both NATO members and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Many Western foreign ministers, attending the OSCE session, on Thursday expressed their concern over police heavy-handedness and called for a peaceful solution.

In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev rebuked German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on Friday for visiting a protest encampment on Kiev's Independence Square.

"I wonder how our German partners would feel if the Russian foreign minister went into some mob that was (gathered) in contradiction of Germany's rules," he said. "I don't think they would see this as a friendly step or a correct one."

In the city of Kharkiv, a court hearing in a new prosecution against Tymoshenko - whom many demonstrators regard as their leader - was put off again because of her non-attendance due to back trouble.

The EU considers Tymoshenko, the peasant-braided politician who co-led the "orange revolution" protests of 2004-5, a political prisoner and campaigned in vain for her release before Kiev broke off negotiations.

Azarov spoke sharply to Westerwelle on Thursday about the opposition, which includes far-right nationalist groups as well as pro-European liberals. "Nazis, extremists and criminals cannot be, in any way, our partners in 'Eurointegration'," the government website quoted him as telling the German foreign minister.

Westerwelle expressed concern about police behaviour at the weekend's protests, when dozens of people were severely beaten.

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