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Ukraine protest urged over EU snub

Ukraine's jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko says she is ready to urge the European Union to drop the demand for her release if that could help persuade the government to sign a landmark association agreement with the bloc.

Ms Tymoshenko, whose jailing the West calls politically motivated, also urged Ukrainians to take to the streets to protest at the government's decision to shelve the deal and turn to Russia instead.

"She is calling on everybody to come out and express your civic position on the squares of all the cities of the country," said her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko.

At the same time, Ms Tymoshenko urged President Viktor Yanukovych to change his mind and sign the deal.

An EU spokeswoman said Mr Yanukovych is still welcome to attend the summit next week in Vilnius. "Our firm belief is that the future of Ukraine still lies in a strong relationship with the EU," said Maja Kocijancic.

The EU had made Ms Tymoshenko's release a condition for concluding a free trade and political association agreement with Ukraine.

Ukraine's Cabinet on Thursday suspended preparations for signing the agreement. That was a big victory for Russia, which has worked aggressively to derail the deal and keep Ukraine in its orbit.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov sought to defend the decision in parliament on Friday, but was booed by opposition MPs, who chanted "Shame!" and threw stacks of papers at his ministers.

Mr Azarov said Ukraine cannot afford to lose trade with Russia and suggested the EU did not offer Ukraine any compensation for that. He also complained that the conditions the International Monetary Fund has set for rescuing its struggling economy with a bailout loan were impossible to fulfill.

Ukraine's trade is split more or less equally between Russian in the EU.

Ms Tymoshenko's top ally, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, accused Mr Yanukovych of selling out to Moscow in exchange for cash and ensuring his re-election in 2015.

"This is a well-planned scenario by Yanukovych: how to sell the Ukrainian state and to buy himself a seat of the governor of Little Russia as part of the great Russian empire," he said.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St Petersburg, denied twisting Ukraine's arm, and, in turn, accused the EU of "pressure and blackmail" of Ukraine.

"It will become clear in the next few days whether Ukraine and its leadership will yield to pressure or will be able to resist it and take a pragmatic stance in line with national interests," Mr Putin said.

Mr Yatsenyuk called on Ukrainians to join an opposition rally on Sunday on Kiev's central square, the epicentre of the Orange Revolution which annulled Mr Yanukovych's fraud-tainted victory in a presidential vote and helped bring his pro-Western opponents to power.

A smaller protest was already under way there. Several dozen activists wrapped in the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags hid from rain under umbrellas.

"Europe is our future. In Europe a person is treated with respect," said Vitaliy Tokaryuk, 25, an estate agent who had spent the night on the Independence Square.

In 2010 presidential elections Mr Yanukovych narrowly defeated Ms Tymoshenko. The next year, she was sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges.

AP

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