The EU was scrambling Thursday night to rescue a landmark deal to integrate Ukraine more closely with the west, as demonstrators again massed in Kiev calling on their president, Viktor Yanukovich, to sign the agreement.
EU leaders flew into a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, for their first meeting with Mr Yanukovich since his government last week dramatically froze preparations for the deal and instead reopened talks on closer ties with Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Vilnius that she saw “no hope” of signing a deal with Kiev at the summit as planned, but the “door was still open” to Ukraine.
At a dinner in Vilnius the 28 EU heads of government were set to discuss whether to sign a proposed joint declaration today with Mr Yanukovich, saying talks would resume between the two sides in hopes of signing the deal no later than March.
Ukraine is facing what leaders on both sides have called a “civilisational” choice between a trade and association agreement with the EU that would tilt the country towards the west, or deepening relations with Russia.
It has come under intense pressure from Moscow not to sign the EU deal. Russia has banned a range of Ukrainian products, and severely disrupted trade by stepping up border controls on goods and on Ukrainians working in Russia.
Failure to conclude a deal with Ukraine would be a blow to the EU’s four-year-old “Eastern Partnership” programme, aimed at projecting European values into six former Soviet republics by offering deeper trade and political ties in return for reforms.
In Kiev’s central square and other Ukrainian cities, thousands gathered for a seventh day to call for Mr Yanukovich to sign the deal, and said more would arrive today and over the weekend if he did not. A protest last Sunday attracted more than 100,000 people.
A decision by students this week to go on strike has injected fresh energy into the protests. Some demonstrators said authorities were trying to prevent supporters from pro-European regions of western Ukraine, which played a big part in the 2004 uprising, from flocking to Kiev. Brussels was said to have come under pressure from Washington to keep chances of a deal with Ukraine alive. Extending talks until March could allow time for the International Monetary Fund to resolve differences with Kiev over a bailout to ease Ukraine’s worsening financial squeeze.
Some EU officials and senior Ukrainians warned, however, that such a declaration might merely provide a smokescreen for Mr Yanukovich to complete talks on an alternative arrangement with Russia.
Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s president, denied that Russia had outflanked the EU over Ukraine “We are talking about a decision that Ukraine made,” she said.