KIEV – Ukraine’s prime minister said Wednesday that Kiev still wants to reach a historic agreement with the European Union on closer relations despite breaking off talks on the pact last week.
“I affirm with full authority that the negotiating process over the Association Agreement is continuing, and the work on moving our country closer to European standards is not stopping for a single day,” Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told a government meeting.
EU officials had hoped to sign the so-called Association Agreement with Kiev at a two-day summit that was set to kick off Thursday in Vilnius.
But the Ukrainian government broke off negotiations, citing concerns that signing the deal would harm trade and economic relations with neighbor Russia.
Azarov’s comments at the Cabinet meeting came as hundreds of protesters rallied outside the government building for the fourth day in a row to demand that the deal be signed.
The agreement would serve as Kiev’s first step toward eventual membership in the 28-nation bloc, pulling the former Soviet country out of Russia’s orbit for the first time.
On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for European leaders to end their criticism over Ukraine’s decision to delay the pact.
Putin said the deal would be a “major threat” to the Russian economy.
Kiev admitted Tuesday that Moscow had asked it to delay signing the pact, while President Viktor Yanukovych said he would consider signing under new terms.
The surprising decision sparked the largest protests to hit the former Soviet country since the pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in the capital Kiev and western Ukraine.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso have said they “strongly disapprove” of Russia’s actions, prompting Putin to urge European leaders to tone down their criticism.
“I ask our friends in Brussels, my personal good friends in the European Commission, to hold back on the sharp words,” Putin said during a visit to Italy. “Do we have to choke entire sectors of our economy for them to like us?”
Yanukovych has called for calm after sometimes violent mass demonstrations that have seen riot police fire tear gas at protesters who hurled traffic cones and rocks at security forces.
On Tuesday he said the government wants better terms for the EU deal.
“As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will be talking about signing,” Yanukovych said in a televised interview. “When that will be — soon or not so soon — time will tell.”
In a video address to the nation Monday, he said Ukraine’s battered economy can’t afford the free trade deal with the EU and urged calm.
But that did not appear to convince his opponents, with more than 20,000 protesting in the western city of Lviv and around 7,000 taking to the streets of Kiev on Tuesday.
“We just have one demand for Yanukovych: a one-hour flight, Vilnius, a pen and the signing of the agreement,” opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at the rally.
Tens of thousands massed in Kiev on Sunday and up to 20,000 on Monday, when jailed opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko went on a hunger strike and urged Ukrainians to pressure the leadership into signing the pact.
Ukraine’s decision to abandon the EU agreement came after parliament failed to adopt legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko, an EU condition for the deal.
Washington weighed into the dispute, firmly backing those calling for closer Ukrainian ties with the European Union.
“We support, of course, the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to achieve a prosperous European democracy. European integration is the surest course to economic growth and strengthening Ukraine’s democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
While not explicitly backing the street protests, she added that “we continue to encourage all Ukrainians to express their views on Ukraine’s future in a constructive manner.”
Azarov had earlier confirmed to reporters that Russia had suggested putting off the deal and said it was ready for three-way trade talks with Ukraine and the EU.
“Delay the signing of the agreement, we will sit at the table, come to an agreement on something and then sign away,” he quoted the Russians as saying.
Azarov added that talks with Moscow on restoring closer trade cooperation will begin next month.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday the Association Agreement would bring about “a years-long period of economic hardship” for Ukraine.
Russia wants Ukraine to join its Customs Union, which already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ahead of the European Union’s two-day Eastern Partnership summit, Russia tightened customs controls with Ukraine and threatened retaliation if Ukraine signs the deal.
On Tuesday, Russia — which had banned imports of popular Ukrainian chocolate — held talks with Ukrainian officials to lift the ban.