MOSCOW, Russia — Protesters in Ukraine are hoping to stage a nationwide campaign to denounce the government’s suspension on Thursday of plans to sign landmark agreements with the European Union, a move they say marks the abandonment of the country’s European aspirations.
Calls to protest from opposition leaders, civic activists and ordinary Ukrainians flooded social networks on Friday, a day after the cabinet announced it would forgo sweeping political and trade agreements with the EU in favor of renewing relations with Russia, its Soviet-era ruler.
The surprise decision attracted hundreds of demonstrators on Thursday night to central Kyiv’s Independence Square — where the democratic Orange Revolution kicked off exactly nine years ago today — but activists are apparently seeking to build a wider protest momentum that would overcome the political apathy that’s pervaded the country in recent years.
The Twitter hashtag “Yevromaidan” (Eurosquare) was trending all day Friday as protesters staged another demonstration on Independence Square that was mirrored by smaller protests in other major cities.
Imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called in a letter on Friday for Ukrainians “to react to this as they would a coup d’etat” and to “get out on to the streets,” Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, the leaders of Ukraine’s three main opposition parties are preparing for a larger rally set for Sunday.
Although President Viktor Yanukovych and other leading officials had publicly supported signing the agreements, his ruling Party of Regions fumbled numerous attempts to pass laws that would have released Tymoshenko, imprisoned since 2011 for alleged abuse of office, to Germany for medical care.
EU officials, who believe Tymoshenko’s jailing was politically motivated, had made her freeing a precondition for Ukraine to conclude association and trade agreements in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius next week.
The government’s rapid about-face angered those who’d hoped the pact would pull Ukraine further into Europe’s orbit and away from Moscow’s influence.
The mayor of Lviv — the largest city in pro-European western Ukraine — called for open protests and held an extraordinary session of the city council to hammer out an “official position” on the cabinet’s decision to suspend work on the signing the agreements.
Nevertheless, it’s unclear whether Ukrainians, who observers say have suffered from a sense of apathy after the Orange Revolution failed to produce meaningful change, are prepared to rally en masse around another political cause.
Although many brimmed with enthusiasm on Twitter, some also expressed skepticism that the spontaneous demonstrations were an attempt to emulate the spirit of those street protests, which attracted half a million people and ushered in the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko.
His tenure was marked by stalled reforms, broken promises and political infighting with Tymoshenko. Observers said that disenchantment helped elect Yanukovych — cast as the villain during the 2004 revolution — as president in 2010.
But experts say that while many have long been disenchanted with politicians of all stripes, Thursday’s decision helped rally opposition-minded Ukrainians around a common cause, not a common politician.
“Yesterday there emerged a division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – there’s the government, and then there’s everyone else,” said Serhiy Taran, head of the International Democracy Institute in Kyiv.
According to the most recent polls, a narrow majority of Ukrainians prefers European integration over a Russia-led customs union, which the Kremlin has aggressively promoted in recent months through political and economic pressure.
What’s more, Taran says, those who support European integration tend to be better educated and informed.
“That’s why this is a very personal affair for them,” he said.
Activists said the spontaneous protest on Thursday night showed promising signs of turning into a larger movement.
“What I really enjoyed was that people organized themselves over social networks within several hours without any calls from opposition leaders,” said Serhiy Melnichenko, a political activist in Kyiv.
“And about 1,500 showed up just like that — this is a very serious thing.”
In a letter to Yanukovych on Friday, Tymoshenko called on him to reconsider abandoning the EU agreements. “Yesterday... I simply wanted to kill you,” she wrote.
She also said she was ready to ask EU officials to drop her release as a precondition in a last-ditch effort to salvage the agreements.
But it seems unlikely the authorities will budge a week before Ukraine was due to sign the pact at a summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Some officials, including Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, have made no secret of cash-strapped Ukraine’s dependence on trade with Moscow, which threatened to sever economic ties if Kyiv signed on with the EU.
Opposition lawmakers greeted him with jeers after he told parliament on Friday that unfavorable terms in a proposed International Monetary Fund deal had been the “last straw” for Ukraine.
Yanukovych also reportedly told his Lithuanian counterpart, Dalia Grybauskaite, in a telephone conversation this week that pressure from Russia had forced his hand, the Baltic News Service reported Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, accused the EU on Friday of “blackmail” in attempting to court Ukraine.
"We have heard threats from our European partners toward Ukraine, up to and including promoting the holding of mass protests," he said during a news conference with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
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Top EU officials unanimously lamented Ukraine’s decision on Thursday, speaking of “missed opportunities” and expressing regret over what they said would be a loss for ordinary Ukrainians.
They warned that Ukraine may not receive a second chance for a number of years. They also appeared to dismiss three-way talks Ukraine proposed to conduct with Russia and the EU to discuss mutual trade relations.
Observers in Ukraine, meanwhile, believe Yanukovych’s former European suitors will lose interest as he struggles to retain his power in a 2015 presidential election amid widespread discontent.
Speaking of the possibilities of spontaneous protest, the prominent journalist Mustafa Nayyem wrote in the independent Ukrayinska Pravda online portal that “the eyes of the international community will be turned only to the streets of Ukrainian cities.”