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Ukrainian President Defends Refusal to Sign Accords, as Protests Continue

On the day after a huge protest by hundreds of thousands of people in Kiev, the capital, and by thousands more in other cities, Mr. Yanukovich struck a casual pose, sitting in an armchair for an interview with four television stations. He seemed to brush aside the unrest in the country, saying he would leave as scheduled for a state visit to China on Tuesday and taking the opportunity to note that the government intended to increase financing for road repair next year.

To many here, it was unclear if Mr. Yanukovich’s calm demeanor reflected supreme confidence, complete denial or some combination of the two. Other political leaders in Ukraine acknowledged that the authorities were facing a serious civil disturbance, including the occupation by protesters of Kiev City Hall and the large Trade Unions building nearby, as well as a blockade of the Cabinet Ministry, which prevented top officials from reaching their offices.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, in a meeting with Western ambassadors, complained about the widening unrest, saying, “This has all the signs of a coup.” Opposition leaders in Parliament said they would call for vote of no-confidence in the government on Tuesday, while protest leaders appeared to be digging in for a long battle on the streets, establishing a tent city in Independence Square that included first aid stations and canteens.

Mr. Yanukovich’s remarks during the interview suggested that he was reaching out even further for help from Russia, where President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday remarked, “The events in Ukraine seem more like a pogrom than a revolution.” Russia had exerted heavy pressure to convince Mr. Yanukovich to scuttle the political and free trade agreements with Europe, threatening trade sanctions that could decimate the Ukrainian economy.

Mr. Yanukovich, in the television interview, said that he planned to initiate negotiations this week with Russia to extend a strategic partnership agreement dating from 1997. He said that both Ukraine and Russia were acting in their own economic interests by seeking to strengthen ties, and he took a jab at the protesters who demanded that he sign the accords with Europe, suggesting that they were not acting in accordance with Western values.

“If we want European standards, we must do everything within the framework of the law — this is the principle of democracy,” Mr. Yanukovich said. He also suggested that the leaders in Parliament supporting demands for his resignation were getting ahead of themselves. “I urge all politicians not to rush,” he said. “They are all still young, and they have everything ahead of them. Elections are coming. People will determine. Whoever is elected, so be it.”

His remarks on elections were sure to draw snickers, given that Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was set off by blatant ballot fraud that handed Mr. Yanukovich an easy victory in the presidential race that year. He has also been under sharp international criticism for the conviction and jailing of his main political rival, former president Yulia V. Tymoshenko, on abuse of authority charges.

Mr. Yanukovich also spoke by phone on Monday with the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and asked to continue some discussions around the political and free trade accords. The Europeans have said they remain open to signing the agreements, provided Ukraine meets necessary conditions, including efforts to overhaul its judicial system. Mr. Barroso in the telephone conversation urged restraint in dealing with protesters, and respect for civil liberties.


 

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