Protesters In Ukraine Agitated By Economic Deal With Russia

As pro-Europe protests continue in Ukraine, the country's president signs a deal getting billions of dollars worth of loans and gas discounts from Russia. It's the latest move in a tug-of-war over whether that brawny country will align itself economically with Europe or Russia.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday, Ukraine got a big holiday present from its neighbor, Russia, in the form of a multi-billion dollar bailout. And now everyone is trying to figure out what strings Russia attached, and whether this could be a sign that Ukraine, a country of some 45 million people, is aligning itself more closely with the East than the West.

The deal with Russia gives Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych some breathing space as he deals with his country's economic mess. But this provoked outrage among the tens of thousands of pro-Western demonstrators who are still camped out in the capital city, Kiev. NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us from Moscow, where all this was announced. Good morning, Corey.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, for many of those pro-Western demonstrators on the streets of Kiev, braving the cold, seeing their president making a deal with Russia's president - not the image that they wanted. But, I mean, is this deal substantively significant?

FLINTOFF: Yes, it is. It's a very big deal for Ukraine. As you said, Ukraine's in desperate economic trouble. It probably was headed for bankruptcy sometime next year. So, President Putin announced that Russia is giving Ukraine a temporary discount on natural gas. Ukraine is almost totally dependent on Russia for energy, and Russia's been charging Ukraine some of the highest prices in Europe.

So, for now, Putin says he'll cut that price by one-third. Plus, Russia will lend Ukraine about $15 billion over the next year, which is almost enough to pay all the debts that are coming due.

GREENE: And all of this, I would imagine, gives Putin and Russia some leverage now over Ukraine, and it's worth reminding people that the whole context here is both Russia and the West have been vying for influence over this big economy. How does that change things?

FLINTOFF: Well, Ukraine is potentially a big prize, either for the European Union or for Russia. It's got resources. It's got industries that could be very profitable if they were developed. And Ukraine's been trying for years now to work out a deal that would have aligned it with the European Union.

President Yanukovych was all set to sign the agreement last month, but he came under very heavy pressure from Russia, which wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led Customs Union. So, at almost the last minute, Yanukovych refused to sign, and he said Ukraine needs to restore its trade ties with Russia.

GREENE: And that, we should say, is what brought all these people out onto the streets of Kiev, these massive crowds. You were out there reporting recently. How did they react to the news of this deal?

FLINTOFF: Angrily. Tens of thousands more people came to the square in Kiev last night. They're saying that Yanukovych has sold them out to the Russians in order to get a short-term political gain for himself. Vitaly Klitchko - he's the heavyweight boxing champ who emerged as one of the leaders of the protest - he gave a fiery speech last night, where he said that Yanukovych has given away the Ukrainian peoples' independence.

So, the protesters are stepping up their demands that Yanukovych resign, and they want early elections.

GREENE: And, Corey, what about Russia and Vladimir Putin? I mean, Putin has been raising his profile internationally recently. This seems to be really important. He wants to maintain Russia's influence in the neighborhood and create this Customs Union, this economic partnership with other countries in the neighborhood, as you say. I mean, does this mean he's really won the struggle for Ukraine?

FLINTOFF: Well, not yet. President Putin, in fact, said yesterday that he and Yanukovych didn't discuss whether Ukraine would become part of the Moscow-led Customs Union. But this just underlines how much President Putin wants Ukraine. You know, on the one hand, economists say that the proposed Customs Union wouldn't work without Ukraine.

And on the other, Putin seems to have a deep, personal attachment to the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, something that goes back over more than a thousand years of history. In theory, Ukraine is still free to choose which side it will align with, and the EU has said it's still open to an agreement.

But at the same time, opposition leaders in Ukraine say they're afraid that this bailout from Russia will make Ukraine so indebted to Russia, that eventually, it'll have no choice but to join Putin's alternative to the European Union.

GREENE: NPR's Corey Flintoff, speaking to us from Moscow. Thanks, Corey.

FLINTOFF: My pleasure, David.

GREENE: This is NPR News.

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