Ukraine is voting in the first round of presidential elections with current leader Petro Poroshenko seeking re-election but the surprise front-runner is a comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, along with former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, have expressed largely pro-European views during campaigning.
None of the pro-Russian candidates are seen as serious contenders.
If no candidate gets more than 50% on March 31, the top two will fight it out in a second round on April 21.
A total of 39 candidates are on the ballot paper, but only the three front-runners are considered to have any chance of victory.
President Poroshenko has significant powers over security, defense and foreign policy and the ex-Soviet republic’s system is described as semi-presidential.
The current leader, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs, was elected in a snap vote after former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled in the February 2014 Maidan Revolution, which was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a Russian-backed insurgency in the east.
The next president will inherit a deadlocked conflict between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists in the east, while Ukraine strives to fulfill EU requirements for closer economic ties.
The EU says that about 12% of Ukraine’s 44 million people are disenfranchised, largely those who live in Russia and in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014.
Separatist-controlled areas are boycotting the election.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, is aiming to turn his satirical TV show – in which he portrays an ordinary citizen who becomes president after fighting corruption – into reality.
He has done no rallies and few interviews, and appears to have no strong political views apart from a wish to be new and different.
The comedian’s extensive use of social media appeals to younger voters.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s readiness to speak both Russian and Ukrainian, at a time when language rights are a hugely sensitive topic, has gained him support in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east.
Opinion polls suggest Volodymyr Zelenskiy will have a clear lead over Petro Poroshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in the first round, and would retain it in a run-off against either of them.
Petro Poroshenko, 53, aims to appeal to conservative Ukrainians through his slogan “Army, Language, Faith”.
The current president says his backing for the military has helped keep the separatists in eastern Ukraine in check. He also negotiated an Association Agreement with the EU, including visa-free travel for Ukrainians. During his tenure the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has become independent of Russian control.
However, Poroshenko’s campaign has been dogged by corruption allegations, including a scandal over defense procurement, which erupted last month.
The third main contender is Yulia Tymoshenko, 58, who has served as prime minister and ran for president in 2010 and 2014. She played a leading role in the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s first big push to ally itself with the EU.
The front-runner among the pro-Russian candidates, Yuriy Boyko, says he would “normalize” relations with Russia.
Petro Poroshenko has claimed outright victory in Ukraine’s presidential election.
Billionaire Petro Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king”, won more than 55% of the vote in the first round, exit polls suggest.
Announcing he had won, the 48-year-old businessman promised to forge closer links with the EU and restore peace in restive eastern regions.
Pro-Russian separatists severely disrupted voting there. Some 20 people have died in fighting in recent days.
No polling stations were open in Donetsk city, and across the region only seven out of 12 district electoral commissions were operating. The separatists are in control of large areas of the Donestk and Luhansk regions.
Four hours before polls closed, at 16:00, unofficial estimates put the turnout nationwide at 45%.
Petro Poroshenko has claimed outright victory in Ukraine’s presidential election
Addressing supporters in Kiev, Petro Poroshenko said he would support a parliamentary election later this year.
He also said he would never recognize Russia’s “occupation of Crimea”, annexed by Moscow in March. Asked about relations with Russia, he said the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine mattered most to him.
Petro Poroshenko is the billionaire owner of the Roshen chocolates group, a TV station and several manufacturing plants.
President Barack Obama hailed the election as an “important step forward in the efforts of the Ukrainian government to unify the country”.
Sunday’s poll was called after President Viktor Yanukovych was deposed in February, amid mass protests against his pro-Russian policies.
Local elections were also held on Sunday in Ukraine. Former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko – again quoting exit polls – claimed he had been elected mayor of Kiev.
Vitaliy Klitschko, a pro-Western politician, withdrew his own presidential bid and announced his support for Petro Poroshenko.
On Friday Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would respect the outcome of Ukraine’s election.
Kiev and the West accuse Russia of stoking separatist sentiment – a claim Vladimir Putin denies.
Separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after referendums on May 11, a move not recognized by Kiev or its Western allies.
The two regions took their cue from a disputed referendum in Crimea, which led to Russia’s annexation of the southern peninsula.
Eighteen candidates were competing in the presidential election, seen as a crucial to unite the country.
The exit polls suggest ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko came a distant second, with over 12% of the vote.
Former boxing champion and leading politician Vitaly Klitschko has pulled out of Ukraine’s presidential elections planned in May.
Vitaly Klitschko said instead he would back tycoon Petro Poroshenko.
Both men played a key role in months of street protests that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Vitaly Klitschko, 42, announced his decision to pull out of the presidential race at his Udar (Punch) party’s gathering in Kiev on Saturday.
“The only chance of winning is to nominate one candidate from the democratic forces,” he said.
He stressed that a contender with “the highest chances to win should be running” for the presidency.
“Today, Petro Poroshenko is this candidate,” Vitaly Klitschkosaid, reminding supporters that the two politicians had stood and fought shoulder-to-shoulder at the protesters’ main camp in Kiev – the Maidan.
Petro Poroshenko, 48, has already declared his intention to enter the race.
Vitaly Klitschko has pulled out of Ukraine’s presidential race and he will back tycoon Petro Poroshenko (photo AFP)
The owner of the popular Roshen chocolate company, Petro Poroshenko is widely known in Ukraine as the “chocolate king”.
He has held a number of cabinet portfolios under different presidents in the past decade.
On Saturday, Petro Poroshenko said that – together with the Udar party – “we declare our goal is a new Ukraine”.
“Our goal is to live in a new way. To form Ukraine in a way that there will be rich, free and honest citizens happy to be Ukrainians and to live in a country respected by the whole world.”
Vitaly Klitschko’s withdrawal means the race is likely to be between Petro Poroshenko and former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.
Several former supporters of Viktor Yanokovych have also announced they will run. The Party of Regions, to which Viktor Yanukovych belonged, on Saturday backed former Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin to run for the presidency.
The May 25 elections are seen as a crucial step in leading Ukraine out of the country’s deepest political crisis since its independence in 1991. An interim administration is currently in place in Kiev, led by acting President Olksandr Turchynov and PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Russia says the current authorities in Kiev came to power in a coup and are, therefore, illegitimate.
Ukraine – backed by the West – denies the claim.
Moscow formally annexed Crimea after the predominantly ethnic Russian region held a referendum earlier this month which backed joining Russia.
Latest opinions polls give Petro Poroshenko about 25% of the vote, ahead of his presidential rivals, while Vitaly Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko are lagging far behind.
However, Yulia Tymoshenko, 53, who was released from prison last month following the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, is expected to mount a strong campaign.
In all, 15 contenders are planning to challenge for Ukraine’s presidency.
Ukraine’s ex-PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been caught in a leaked taped phone call with parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych, talking about it is “time to go grab guns and kill those damned Russians with their leader,” so that “not even scorched earth will be left where Russia stands”.
Translations also capture Yulia Tymoshenko as saying she would “like to grab a machine gun and shoot that motherf***er in the head”.
According to the Moscow Times, the recording, apparently made March 8, details a conversation between Yulia Tymoshenko and Nestor Shufrych from Ukraine’s National Security Council, and has Tymoshenko suggesting that Ukrainians should kill Russians, and, in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The recording, which may have been altered, also apparently features Yulia Tymoshenko suggesting that the 8 million Russians living in Ukraine should be killed with “nuclear weapons”.
Yulia Tymoshenko has been caught in a leaked taped phone call with parliamentarian Nestor Shufrych (photo RT)
The video containing the recording was initially uploaded to a YouTube account under the name Sergiy Vechirko, and has since been widely shared on pro-Kremlin media outlets.
While the Moscow Times reports that Nestor Shufrych has denied the recording is real, a tweet from Yulia Tymoshenko appears to suggest she believes at least part of it is real.
In her tweet, Yulia Tymoshenko says that the recording has been edited, and that she in fact said that the Russians in Ukraine “were Ukrainian”.
She also added: “Hello FSB :)” in reference to Russia’s security agency.
Yulia Tymoshenko, widely considered a potential candidate for the Ukrainian presidential election in May, does not have a reputation for being anti-Russia, which has struck some as strange, and had enjoyed a working relationship with Vladimir Putin in the past.
Ukraine parliament’s speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has been named as interim president.
Oleksandr Turchynov takes charge following the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday. He told lawmakers they had until Tuesday to form a new unity government.
Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from jail on Saturday, has ruled out becoming prime minister again.
Her release was one of the conditions of the EU-Ukraine trade pact that Viktor Yanukovych rejected last year.
The move triggered the protests that led to the current crisis.
The health ministry says 88 people, mostly protesters, are now known to have been killed in clashes since February 18.
Thousands of opposition supporters remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, heeding opposition calls not to disperse.
Ukraine parliament’s speaker Oleksandr Turchynov has been named as interim president
In response to reports that her name was being mentioned as a possible candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko issued a statement reading: “No-one has agreed or discussed this with me.
“Thank you for your respect but I would like you not to consider my nomination for the post of the head of government.”
Oleksandr Turchynov, a close associate of Yulia Tymoshenko, described forming a unity government as a “priority task”.
“We don’t have much time,” one of the opposition leaders, former world champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko, said as parliament began its debate.
“I want to make Ukraine a modern European country,” he said.
“If I can do that through the president’s position, I will do my best.”
In an address on Saturday, aired before lawmakers voted to remove him, Viktor Yanukovych refused to officially stand down. He is last thought to have been in Kharkiv after travelling there late on Friday night.
Yulia Tymoshenko has urged opposition supporters in Kiev’s Independence Square to continue their protests.
Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, who has a back injury, addressed crowds from a wheelchair after being freed from detention.
“Until you finish this job… nobody has the right to leave,” she said.
Her speech came at the end of a dramatic day that saw President Viktor Yanukovych removed by the parliament and fleeing Kiev, but refusing to stand down.
Yulia Tymoshenko broke down in tears as she told cheering supporters late on Saturday: “You are heroes.
Yulia Tymoshenko has urged opposition supporters in Kiev’s Independence Square to continue their protests
“Because nobody could… do what you have done.”
“We’ve eliminated this cancer, this tumor,” she said.
However, while Yulia Tymoshenko was hailed by many in the audience, she does not enjoy universal support among the opposition.
Before she went into prison in 2011, Yulia Tymoshenko’s popularity ratings were dropping and many Ukrainians blame her in part for the chaos of the post-Orange Revolution years, or see her as a member of Ukraine’s corrupt elite.
Dozens of people walked away in disgust when she appeared on the stage in Independence Square.
A vote by parliament on Friday paved the way for Yulia Tymoshenko’s release.
In an address televised before Ukraine’s parliament vote to impeach him, Viktor Yanukovych described events in Kiev as a “coup”.
Viktor Yanukovych insisted he was the “lawfully elected president” and compared the actions of the opposition to the rise to power of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
In his address Viktor Yanukovych also called a raft of votes in Ukraine’s parliament on Friday “illegitimate”, claiming that lawmakers had been “beaten, pelted with stones and intimidated”.
However, he did admit that that some had left his Party of the Regions, calling them “traitors”.
President Viktor Yanukovych also said his ally, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak, was forced to resign because he had been physically beaten.
He added that both Volodymyr Rybak’s car and his own had been fired at.
In an address televised before Ukraine’s parliament vote to impeach him, Viktor Yanukovych described events in Kiev as a coup
Volodymyr Rybak resigned on Saturday morning citing ill health and was replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov, a Yulia Tymoshenko ally.
Another Yulia Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, was appointed interim interior minister, replacing Vitaly Zakharchenko, who was sacked on Friday after being blamed for the deaths of civilians in last week’s crackdown on protests.
Before Saturday’s vote to oust Viktor Yanukovych, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Ukrainian opposition of being led by “armed extremists and pogromists” whose actions were a threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order.
Also before the vote, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski – one of three EU ministers that mediated between the two sides this week – tweeted that there had been “no coup in Kiev”.
Radoslaw Sikorski, along with the German and French foreign ministers, presided over talks that led to a pact on Friday between Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders which now seems to have been overtaken by events.
The deal followed several days of violence in which dozens of people died in a police crackdown on months of protest. It called for the restoration of the 2004 constitution and the formation of a national unity government.
The agreement failed to end the protests overnight with huge crowds remaining in the Maidan calling for Viktor Yanukovych’s resignation.
Ukraine’s parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25.
The vote came after the opposition seized several official buildings in the capital Kiev and parliament appointed high-level officials.
Viktor Yanukovych described events as a “coup” and vowed not to stand down.
Also on Saturday afternoon, prominent opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was released from detention, hours after parliament authorized the move.
Correspondents say Yulia Tymoshenko was driven away in a car after leaving a hospital in the eastern city of Kharkiv where she was being held under prison guard.
Yulia Tymoshenko is now reported to be heading to Kiev’s Independence Square – also called the Maidan – which has been the focal point of anti-government protests.
Lawmakers had voted to pave the way for Yulia Tymoshenko’s release on Friday. She was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 after being convicted of abuse of power over her actions during her tenure as prime minister.
Ukraine’s parliament has voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25
Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters have always maintained this was simply Viktor Yanukovych taking out his most prominent opponent, and her release has always been a key demand of the protest movement.
The opposition is now in effective control of the capital Kiev, with Viktor Yanukovych arriving in Kharkiv, near the Russian border, late on Friday night.
The Interfax news agency reported parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov as saying Viktor Yanukovych had been stopped by border police in an attempt to flee to Russia and was now somewhere in the Donetsk region.
Earlier on Saturday, protesters walked unchallenged into the president’s office and residential compounds.
Ukraine’s army released a statement on Saturday afternoon saying it would not get “involved in the domestic political conflict”.
The vote to “remove Viktor Yanukovych from the post of president of Ukraine” was passed by 328 MPs.
Such ballots, passed by what is called constitutional majority, are binding and enter into force with immediate effect.
Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from jail.
It follows a vote by parliament to release her after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital Kiev.
Speaking after her release, the Ukrainian opposition leader said “the dictatorship has fallen”.
Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2011 after a controversial verdict on her actions as prime minister.
Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed from jail
The glamorous, fiery orator who helped lead the Orange Revolution – Ukraine’s revolt against a controversial election in 2004 – was convicted of criminally exceeding her powers when she agreed a gas deal with Russia which was seen to have disadvantaged her own country.
Yulia Tymoshenko has always insisted the charges were untrue, inspired by Viktor Yanukovych, the man she helped oust in 2004 who returned to defeat her in the 2010 presidential election.
The EU had demanded her release as one of the conditions of the EU-Ukraine trade pact that President Viktor Yanukovych rejected last year – triggering the protests that led to the current crisis.
Olha Lappo, spokeswoman for the Fatherland party Yulia Tymoshenko leads, said she was heading from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv to the capital Kiev to join protesters there.
Yulia Tymoshenko’s release was made possible by a European-brokered peace deal between her President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition on Friday.
In fast-moving events on Saturday, Ukraine’s parliament voted for opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko to be released immediately.
Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of power. Her supporters had always maintained this was simply Viktor Yanukovych taking out his most prominent opponent.
Also in parliament, speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned, citing ill health. He has been replaced by Oleksandr Turchynov, an ally of Yulia Tymoshenko.
Another Yulia Tymoshenko ally, Arsen Avakov, has been appointed interim interior minister. He replaces Vitaly Zakharchenko, who was sacked on Friday after being blamed for the deaths of civilians in last week’s crackdown on protests.
Former PM Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2011 for abuse of power
Vitaly Klitschko, leader of the opposition Udar party, repeated his demand for President Viktor Yanukovych’s immediate resignation.
Meanwhile presidential aide Hanna Herman said Viktor Yanukovych had travelled to Kharkiv in the east, close to the Russian border, from where he was to give a televised address.
A gathering of deputies from the south-east and Crimea – traditionally Russian-leaning areas – is taking place there, but Hanna Herman said the president had “no intention” of attending, nor of leaving the country.
An opposition figure has announced to crowds in Independence Square that President Viktor Yanukovych has resigned. This has not been confirmed, but the crowds reacted with huge cheers. The presidential website appears to have gone down.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has taken sick leave amid violent protests in the country.
The presidential website said 63-year-old Viktor Yanukovych had a respiratory illness and a high fever.
The protests began in November after Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union, instead favoring a bailout deal with Russia to underpin Ukraine’s ailing economy.
Anti-government protesters demanding the president’s resignation are still occupying government buildings and manning barricades in freezing temperatures in the centre of the capital.
The past week has seen President Yanukovych accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet, and offer senior jobs to the opposition – offers that were rejected.
Ukraine’s parliament has also voted to annul a recently enacted law restricting protests – which appeared to be inflaming the situation – and passed a law giving amnesty to detained protesters, under the condition that occupied buildings were vacated.
Viktor Yanukovych had a respiratory illness and a high fever
Some opposition figures expressed skepticism about Viktor Yanukovych’s reported illness, saying he might be trying to buy time after being forced into concessions in an attempt to calm unrest on the streets.
“This smacks of a diplomatic illness,” Rostislav Pavlenko, a member of boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) party, told Reuters news agency.
“It allows Yanukovych not to sign laws, not to meet the opposition, absent himself from decisions to solve the political crisis.”
Mykhailo Chechetov, from Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said the president had told supporters in parliament on Wednesday night that he had come to support the passage of the amnesty bill directly from hospital.
“He looked ill,” Mykhailo Chechetov added.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is in Kiev for talks with both sides. On Wednesday she said she was “shocked” by the violence in the capital and across the country in recent weeks that has left several protesters and police officers dead.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has said he strongly opposes Western politicians intervening in the crisis in his country.
Asked about their recent visits to the protest camp in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych said: “I am categorically against anybody coming and teaching us how to live.”
The opposition is furious after Viktor Yanukovych accepted a Russian bailout, seen as a reward for rejecting EU integration.
President Vladimir Putin said he was defending the Russian economy.
“We just want to defend our gates,” Vladimir Putin told journalists in Moscow, days after Russia gave Ukraine a $15 billion (10.9 billion euros) bailout and gas discount.
Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said, was a fraternal state with close industrial ties to Russia.
Protests have gripped much of Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych suspended the EU deal last month.
The opposition has been demanding to know what, if any, conditions the Kremlin attached to its decision to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian government bonds and slash the gas price from more than $400 per 1,000 cubic metres to $268.5.
Viktor Yanukovych has said he strongly opposes Western politicians intervening in the crisis in Ukraine
Russia’s financial help averted a debt crisis for Ukraine in the short term.
At a news conference in Kiev on Thursday, Viktor Yanukovych was asked about visits to the pro-EU protest camp by foreign politicians who have included US Republican Senator John McCain, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and others.
“What is very important is that this is our internal matter, and that other countries do not intervene in our internal affairs,” he said.
He said the deal with Moscow did not run counter to Ukraine’s course towards European integration and blamed Ukraine’s current economic problems on the policies of his predecessors, the leaders of Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution.
Asked why the Ukrainian economy was in such trouble, Viktor Yanukovych said the gas contract signed with Russia by former PM Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009 had incurred a loss of $20 billion.
Another problem, he said, was the repayment of an IMF loan of $16.4 billion negotiated in 2008, and a third factor was the recent fall in trade with Russia and other ex-Soviet states.
Asked about his position on the Customs Union led by Russia, Viktor Yanukovych said that Ukraine only had observer status but he suggested that it could adopt certain clauses.
“Ukraine’s government is studying these clauses and, once conclusions are drawn, the corresponding transparent decisions will be taken on which clauses we will adhere to,” he said.
Ukraine’s pro-EU protesters have rejected any move to join the Customs Union, which was set up in 2010 and includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
Ukrainian opposition leaders have demanded to know what President Viktor Yanukovych has offered Russia in return for a major economic lifeline.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to buy billions of dollars worth of Ukrainian government bonds and slash the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas.
The announcement comes as Russia tries to stop Ukraine moving towards the EU.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told pro-EU protesters in Kiev Viktor Yanukovych was betraying Ukraine’s independence.
“He has given up Ukraine’s national interests, given up independence,” Vitali Klitschko, a former boxing champion, told the crowd on Tuesday.
“[President] Yanukovych used our country as collateral. According to our sources, he has agreed to a bailout from Russia and put Ukrainian plants, strategic industries, heavy industries, aviation and energy manufacturers up as collateral against it. We want to know what exactly he did put up as collateral, and his reasons for doing it.”
He called on President Viktor Yanukovych to hold a snap election.
“Yanukovych said at our round-table talks that he is not afraid of an early election. If that’s the case, let him prove it in an honest fight,” he said.
Ukrainian opposition leaders have demanded to know what President Viktor Yanukovych has offered Russia in return for a major economic lifeline
Although details of the agreement are unclear, Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of an opposition far-right group, said Viktor Yanukovych had “pawned whole sectors” of the country’s economy to Russia.
Ukraine urgently needs to cover an external funding gap of up to $17 billion (12.3 billion euros) next year to avoid defaulting on its debts.
After talks between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Yanukovych in the Kremlin, it was announced Russia would buy $15 billion-worth of Ukrainian government bonds.
The cost of Russian gas supplied to Ukraine has been slashed from more than $400 (291 euros) per 1,000 cubic metres to $268.5.
Vladimir Putin said the assistance was not “tied to any conditions”.
He also said they had not discussed Ukraine joining a Moscow-led customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.
The US has warned the Ukrainian government that the deal with Russia would not satisfy the protesters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ties with Russia should not prevent Kiev from looking West.
“At the moment it seems to be an either-or proposition. We need to put an end to this,” Angela Merkel told ARD TV.
“A bidding competition won’t solve the problem.”
The current agreement signed between Russia’s Gazprom and Ukraine’s Naftogaz amends a controversial 2009 deal signed by former Ukrainian PM Yulia Tymoshenko, for which she was jailed two years ago.
EU leaders are gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania, for a summit rocked by Ukraine’s shock decision not to sign a far-reaching agreement.
The conclusion of the trade and reform deal was planned as the highlight of a summit aimed also at building ties with other East European states.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is likely to face tough questions from EU leaders on why he stopped the deal, apparently under Russian pressure.
Viktor Yanukovych has requested more EU financial aid.
Pro-EU protests are continuing in Ukrainian cities against the government’s decision to back out of the deal.
EU leaders are gathering in Vilnius for a summit rocked by Ukraine’s shock decision not to sign a far-reaching agreement
Viktor Yanukovych has dismissed an EU condition for signing the agreement – that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and opposition leader, be freed from jail.
The dispute has increased tension between the EU and Russia, with Ukraine complaining it is becoming a “battleground” between the two.
EU leaders said in a statement that they “strongly disapprove” of Moscow’s pressure on Ukraine not to sign – while Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the EU of “blackmail”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is expected to have talks with Viktor Yanukovych on Friday, said Russia should not view relations between the 28-state bloc and ex-Soviet republics as a threat.
“We should overcome the ‘either us or them’ mentality,” Angela Merkel said.
“The Cold War is over.”
The two-day event, billed as the third Eastern Partnership Summit, is being held in the capital of Lithuania, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
The leaders are due to hold informal talks at a dinner on Thursday evening, with the official business of the summit to be conducted on Friday.
Initial political association agreements with Georgia and Moldova are due to be signed, as well as a visa agreement with Azerbaijan.
However, the centrepiece of the summit had been the association agreement with Ukraine. Such agreements, which promote democratic values and economic co-operation, are seen as a key step towards EU membership.
A mass rally has taken place in Kiev following Ukraine’s decision to delay an association agreement with the European Union.
Opposition leaders including former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko have joined the protest on Independence Square.
Activists are comparing the rally to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. They plan to make it a permanent rally.
Anti-riot police have been deployed.
A Kiev court has ruled that tents must not be erected on the square. In 2004 tents were a big feature of the protests against Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Moscow presidential candidate whose election was marred by voting abuses. He is in power now and his arch-rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, is in jail.
Activists are comparing the rally to Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution
Ukraine came under intense pressure from Russia not to sign the historic EU deal at a summit next week.
Ukrainian activists are using social media to mobilise supporters, and on Thursday night opposition demonstrations also took place in the cities of Donetsk, Ivano-Frankovsk, Lutsk, Uzhgorod and Lviv.
Ukraine’s PM Mykola Azarov has said the decision not to sign a wide-ranging trade and association agreement with the EU next week was motivated solely by economics and was “tactical”. He said it did not alter Ukraine’s overall development strategy.
“The decision to suspend the EU association agreement signing is difficult, but the only one possible in the current economic situation in Ukraine,” Mykola Azarov told parliament.
The Ukrainian government said on Thursday that it was instead looking into setting up a joint commission to promote ties between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.
Ukraine has suspended preparations for a trade deal with the EU after a government statement said the decision had been taken to protect the country’s “national security”.
Hours earlier MPs rejected a bill that would have allowed jailed former PM Yulia Tymoshenko to leave the country – which the EU had demanded as a condition for the deal to proceed.
Ukraine had come under intense pressure from Russia not to sign the historic EU deal at a summit next week.
The Ukrainian government said on Thursday that it was instead looking into setting up a joint commission to promote ties between Ukraine, Russia and the EU.
Russia wants Ukraine to join its own customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which it sees as a prototype rival to the EU.
Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych was later quoted by AFP as saying Ukraine “will work further on this path, this path to EU integration”, although it is not clear how this tallies with the suspension of preparations for the deal.
On Thursday MPs threw out six drafts of the bill which would have allowed Yulia Tymoshenko to travel abroad for medical treatment.
Ukraine has suspended preparations for a trade deal with the EU
The EU is sending a top envoy to Kiev.
Stefan Fuele, European commissioner for enlargement, is travelling to the Ukrainian capital on Thursday, for the second time this week.
The bill failed to pass after MPs from President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party refused to cast their votes on any of the six proposed drafts.
The drafts all fell short of the 226 votes needed.
“It is President Viktor Yanukovych who is personally blocking Ukraine’s movement toward the European Union,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, parliamentary leader of Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition Fatherland group, told parliament after the vote failed.
Opposition MPs responded by shouting “shame” as the bill was thrown out.
The legislation proposed that convicts be allowed medical treatment abroad.
Yulia Tymoshenko, 52, is serving seven years in jail after a controversial conviction on charges of abuse of power over a gas deal with Russia.
The EU has made clear it believes the judicial campaign against Yulia Tymoshenko has been politically motivated.