Ukraine’s enraged opposition booed the country’s prime minister in parliament Friday and called for street protests against his government’s abrupt decision to drop a landmark deal with the European Union and turn toward Moscow instead.
Opposition lawmakers dressed in sweaters reading "Freedom to Ukraine" and "Ukraine is Europe" booed Mykola Azarov, started throwing stacks of paper at his ministers and headed toward his seat in order to block his scheduled speech.
Ukraine's Cabinet on Thursday suspended preparations for signing a free trade and a political association agreement with the EU at next week's summit. The turnaround marked a big victory for Russia, which has worked aggressively to derail the deal and keep the former Soviet republic in its orbit.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk denounced the government's decision as state treason and called on Ukrainians to join an opposition rally Sunday on Kiev's central square, the epicenter of massive 2004 protests dubbed the Orange Revolution, which brought pro-Western opposition figures to power.
"We will be fighting against the anti-Ukrainian, anti-European regime," Yatsenyuk said. "Come and show who is the boss in Ukraine, fight for your rights, for your European future."
At smaller protests already underway in Kiev, hundreds wrapped themselves in yellow and blue Ukranian flags to hide from the rain, which failed to dampen their furor over the EU deal.
"Europe is our future, in Europe a person is treated with respect," said Vitaliy Tokaryuk, 25, a real estate agent who had spent the night on the Independence Square.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the European Union on Friday of blackmail and pressure against Ukraine over its decision to suspend preparations for a trade pact that would have undercut Russia’s influence in Kiev.
"We have heard threats from our European partners toward Ukraine, up to and including promoting the holding of mass protests," Putin told a news conference after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
"This is pressure and this is blackmail. Whether the Ukraine and the Ukrainian leadership will give in to such blackmail will be clear only in the next few days."
Ukraine's jailed opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, on Friday called on people to take to the streets and protest against the government's decision not to sign the trade deal.
The EU has been trying to secure her release while at the same time negotiating the signing of an association agreement.
Now that the plans to sign this agreement have ended, Tymoshenko's fate is uncertain, and she may face a prolonged stay in jail.
Ukraine imports nearly all its gas from Russia and is also the major transit route for Russian gas to the European Union. The EU depends on Russia for roughly a quarter of its gas, about half of which passes through Ukraine.
Russia has sought to reduce its dependence on Ukraine as a transit nation, while the EU is seeking alternative sources of gas supply.
Ukrainian big business sees greater prosperity in Europe and until this week Kiev had resisted joining Russia's new customs union, which already comprises several other former Soviet republics.
Joining the Moscow-led customs union would be incompatible with a free-trade deal with the EU because no country can be a member of the two separate trade blocs.
Prime Minister Azarov told lawmakers Friday that 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.
"What will be our compensation for the huge losses from losing the Customs Union market, what, I am asking you?" Azarov asked referring to an economic alliance of former Soviet republics being pushed by Moscow. "Unfortunately, we did not receive a realistic answer to this question."