|A protester waves a Ukrainian national flag on a barricade during an opposition rally at Independence Square in Kiev on Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News)|
KIEV (AFP) ― Pressure mounted on Ukraine’s leader Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday as Germany’s foreign minister met pro-European demonstrators on Kiev’s Independence Square, and America’s top diplomat said Ukrainians deserved the chance to choose their own future.
Three of Ukraine’s former presidents also threw their weight behind mass protests against the government’s rejection of an EU pact, as thousands kept up a permanent presence in the heart of Kiev.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle flew into Kiev on Wednesday evening for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and headed straight to Kiev’s iconic Independence Square, where he spoke to protesters in person.
He headed to the square ― center of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution ― on foot, accompanied by opposition leader and boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who trains in Germany.
“The gates of the European Union are still open. Ukraine has to be on board in Europe and the offers from Europe are still valid,” Westerwelle told reporters after the meetings.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also weighed in, saying Ukrainians had the right to “choose their own future” without external pressures, in an apparent reference to Russia, which Kiev said forced its hand in backing out of the deal.
The comments came as Yanukovych’s government scrambled to stamp out the biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
The demonstrations erupted after the government, squeezed by Moscow, refused to sign a key political and trade agreement with the EU on Friday.
The protesters’ fury was amplified by a police crackdown on a rally on Saturday.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov warned demonstrators they could be held criminally responsible for their acts, while Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko ― the target of harsh criticism over police violence ― forbade the use of force against protesters.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Kiev and western Ukraine in protests that degenerated into unprecedented clashes with police.
Kerry, on a visit to neighboring Moldova, praised the tiny former Soviet state, along with Georgia, for signing partnership deals with the EU despite warnings from Moscow not to do so.
“To the Ukrainian people, we say the same thing: you too deserve the opportunity to choose your own future,” the U.S. secretary of state said.
Any country ought to be able to choose where it affiliates “without external interference, and certainly without external pressures that have a profound impact on your people,” he added, in an apparent reference to Russia.
With Ukraine in need of cash to shore up its finances, Yanukovych pressed on with a three-day visit to China, which could net significant financial deals.
In a blow to the president, his predecessors united to voice support for the protests.
“We express solidarity with the peaceful civic actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians,” said a statement from Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko.
Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president, and the staunchly pro-Western Yushchenko have always been broadly supportive of the opposition. However, the involvement of the wily Kuchma will be seen as a particularly hard blow for Yanukovych, as he retains close contacts with the nation’s powerful oligarchs.
As pro-EU demonstrators blockaded the seat of government, Azarov said the reasons for the protests “have been exhausted,” speaking at the first government meeting since the crisis began more than a week ago.
“I would like to tell people: your leaders are putting you up to a crime,” he said. “They will try to hide behind lawmaker immunity. But you will have no one to hide behind.”
The interior ministry wrote on its Facebook page that the minister Zakharchenko had now “forbidden his subordinates to use force against peaceful protesters.”
Since the weekend’s unrest subsided, the opposition has effectively seized control of iconic Independence Square, setting up a tent city where food and clothing are readily available, pop music blares round the clock and black-robed priests lead protesters in prayer.
Supporters of Yanukovych held a counter-rally Wednesday in his home stronghold of Donetsk, mustering around 10,000 people, an AFP correspondent said.
Seeking to maintain a balance between Russia and the EU, the Ukrainian government said it wanted talks with both Brussels and Moscow.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose government wants Ukraine to join a Russian-led customs union, received a Ukrainian delegation on Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials were also in talks to send another delegation to Brussels.
EU officials appeared to be in no hurry to commit to a firm date. But the bloc’s President Herman van Rompuy said Ukrainians’ “deep European aspirations” were clear and the EU was ready to respond to them.