Ukraine opposition urges rallies to defend EU deal

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Opposition lawmakers hang Ukrainian and EU flags before a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013. Opposition lawmakers on Friday booed Ukraine's prime minister, whose government shelved a landmark deal with the European Union, while turning toward Moscow. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine's jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Friday she was 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, her lawyer said.

There was no immediate reaction from the EU.

Tymoshenko, whose jailing the West calls politically motivated, also urged Ukrainians to take to the streets to protest 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," Tymoshenko's lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko said Friday.

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

An EU spokeswoman said 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, spokeswoman Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat.

The EU had made 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 Friday, but was booed by opposition lawmakers, who chanted "Shame!" and threw stacks of papers at his ministers.

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: in the first nine months of this year exports to the EU stood at $14.6 billion vs. $21.1 billion to Russia, while imports totaled $22.4 billion from the EU vs. $21.2 billion from Russia, according to Concord Capital, an investment firm in Kiev.

Tymoshenko's top ally, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, accused 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 Friday, 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," Putin said.

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

A smaller protest was already underway 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, a real estate agent who had spent the night on the Independence Square.

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

Sunday's rally will test the strength of the opposition, and some say that a large showing may nudge Yanukovych back in the direction of the EU.


Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.