Ukrainian protesters demand release of Tymoshenko

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Associated Press

Posted on November 27, 2013 at 3:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 27 at 7:35 PM

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of people on Wednesday kept up their nearly week-long protest against the Ukrainian government's decision to ditch an agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, but officials showed no signs of relenting to their demands.

About 5,000 people gathered on Independence Square despite freezing temperatures, listening to music and singing. A couple of thousand demonstrators also rallied earlier in the day outside the Ukrainian government building to call for the release of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The EU had made the release of Tymoshenko, the political rival of President Viktor Yanukovych, a condition for signing the association agreement at a summit that begins Thursday in Vilnius, Lithuania.

But Yanukovych has made no move to do so and says that Ukraine wants a better deal than the one offered by the EU. He still plans to attend the summit.

In an open letter released late Wednesday, Tymoshenko urged European leaders to ink the deal with Ukraine without linking it to her release if Yanukovych changes his mind at the last moment.

Yanukovych's government says Ukraine cannot afford to sacrifice trade with Russia for closer ties to the EU. As Kiev intensified talks with Brussels in recent months, Russia imposed punishing trade sanctions.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has blamed the turnaround on the EU's refusal to provide financial aid to help Ukraine's struggling economy.

Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, an EU envoy who has pushed Yanukovych to free Tymoshenko, lamented that the West has nothing to offer Ukraine to help it overcome the "economic blockade" that Russia initiated in the summer.

"This is lacking, but this is crucial because Ukraine's economy is in extremely poor condition, the budget is close to bankruptcy and whoever can help today rather than after a few years is the stronger partner," Kwasniewski said on state Polish Radio 1.

Top Ukrainian opposition figures, including boxer turned politician Vitali Klitschko, have also traveled to Vilinius to attend the EU summit.

The Kiev protesters had been split between two central squares, but on Wednesday afternoon those on Europe Square took down their tents and moved to Independence Square, the center of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Tymoshenko was the heroine of the peaceful Orange Revolution, which overturned Yanukovych's victory in a rigged presidential election. She narrowly lost to Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election, and the next year was sent to prison in a case the West has condemned as political. Yanukovych comes up for re-election in early 2015.

"Sooner or later, she (Tymoshenko) will walk free," said political analyst Viktor Zamyatin of the Razumkov Center. "But understanding the danger she poses to him, Yanukovych is doing everything he can to drag this out as long as possible."

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Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, contributed to this report.

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