KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — The enraged opposition booed prime minister in parliament Friday and called for street protests against government's abrupt decision to shelve a landmark deal with the European Union and turn toward Moscow instead.
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 Ukraine in its orbit.
Prime Minister Mykola 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."
The opposition lawmakers dressed in sweaters reading "Freedom to Ukraine" and "Ukraine is Europe" booed Azarov, started throwing stacks of paper at his ministers, and headed toward his seat in order to block the speech.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk denounced the government's decision as state treason, accusing President Viktor 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 putting pressure on Ukraine. He said that Moscow will have to slap duties on goods imported from Ukraine if it signs the free trade deal with the EU as a necessary move to protect Russia's market.
"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 massive 2004 protests dubbed the Orange Revolution, which annulled Yanukovych's fraud-tainted victory in a presidential vote and helped bring his pro-Western opponents 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."
Meanwhile, a smaller protest was already underway in the center of Kiev in preparation for Sunday's demonstration. Several dozen activists, wrapped in the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags hid from rain under umbrellas. Some danced to Ukrainian national tunes blaring from speakers, others chatted to each other.
"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 Orange Revolution heroine Yulia Tymoshenko, riding a wave of political apathy and resentment over infighting in the Orange camp. The next year, Tymoshenko, a former premier, was sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges. She insists her jailing is part of Yanukovych's plot to keep her from challenging him in the next election in 2015.
The EU has condemned Tymoshenko's jailing as politically motivated and has demanded her release as a condition for signing the association agreement with Ukraine. Yanukovych's supporters in parliament on Thursday refused to support a bill allowing her release.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.