Ukrainians rally as EU suspends work on deals

People shout slogans as they take part in a mass opposition rally on Independence Square in Kyiv on Dec. 15, 2013.

MOSCOW, Russia — Several hundred thousand protesters rallied in Ukraine’s capital on Sunday in a clear sign that anger against President Viktor Yanukovych and his government for backing away from Europe and cracking down on demonstrations remains strong.

But an announcement by a top European Union official that his bloc was suspending talks with Kyiv on sweeping political and trade agreements  — whose shelving by Ukraine’s government last month helped spark the protests — is likely to further complicate the weeks-long crisis.

EU enlargement chief Stefan Fule said work on the pacts was “on hold” over an apparent lack of commitment by Ukrainian officials.

He said via Twitter the “words and deeds” of the Yanukovych administration on the agreements are “further and further apart.”

In a bid to decrease building tensions, Yanukovych has signaled that he still intends to sign association and trade agreements, which would pull Ukraine further into Europe's orbit and away from Russia's grasp.

But after a botched police crackdown on protesters last week, both opposition leaders and top Western officials have grown increasingly doubtful over his intentions.

Fule appeared frustrated with recent attempts by Ukrainian officials to negotiate better financial terms in the deal, whose initial stipulations Yanukovych said on Friday threatened Ukraine's interests.

Critics have accused Yanukovych of playing Europe and Russia off one another to secure the best possible deal for cash-strapped Ukraine, which analysts suggest is teetering on the brink of default.

“Their arguments have no grounds in reality,” Fule said of Ukrainian officials.

More from GlobalPost: Ukrainian president holds talks, opposition calls bluff

The country’s three main opposition leaders accused Yanukovych after a roundtable discussion on Friday of failing to offer any serious concessions to protesters, who have called for both Yanukovych’s and the government’s ouster.

On Saturday, however, he announced he was suspending top officials, including the Kyiv mayor, over their alleged roles in ordering a violent Nov. 30 crackdown on Independence Square, the heart of the demonstrations.

That event left scores of mostly students beaten and bloody and only further inflamed the anti-government protests.

Opposition leader and boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, head of the UDAR party, praised the decision but nevertheless urged “a full reboot of the government,” according to local media reports, a demand Yanukovych and other top officials have regularly dismissed.

Sunday’s rally, which was mirrored by a smaller pro-government rally nearby, also saw US Republican Sen. John McCain address the crowd and apparently extend American support for the demonstrations, which have dragged on into their fourth week.

“The free world is with you, America is with you, and I am with you,” he said, according to a partial transcript of his speech posted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

McCain was only the latest top Western official to appear on the square in support of the protests. Last week, Assistant US Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited demonstrators there and handed out snacks.

At least part of the anger at Sunday’s rally appeared directed toward Yanukovych’s upcoming visit next Tuesday to Moscow, where he is expected to sign economic agreements with Russia, Ukraine's Soviet-era master.

Opposition leaders warned supporters that Yanukovych would take his first steps toward committing his country to a Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, an alternative to EU integration Russia has aggressively pursued in recent months.

“We understand perfectly well that they want to revive the USSR,” opposition leader Oleh Tyahnibok, head of the nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party told the crowd, the Kyiv Post reported.

“That's why Dec. 17 is a very important day for us. That's when we must say ‘no’ to any union managed by Moscow.”

There are few signs of an imminent resolution to the most serious political crisis facing Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Opposition forces in parliament failed to push through a no-confidence vote against the government earlier this month, and Yanukovych’s term expires only in early 2015.