KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Thousands of protesters poured into Kiev's Independence Square, the center of Ukraine's pro-Western Orange Revolution, to demand Friday that the government reverse course and sign a landmark agreement with the EU — a day after leaders stunned the nation by saying they were pulling out of the deal.
Braving a freezing rain, up to 3,000 people voiced their desire to move back toward the West and away from the Moscow-aligned course on which President Viktor Yanukovych was taking the country. It was the same day Ukraine marked the anniversary of the Orange Revolution that overturned a fraudulent presidential election result and brought a Western-leaning government to power.
Similar rallies were also held in other cities across Ukraine, and a much bigger demonstration was planned in Kiev for Sunday. The weekend 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.
"We must press these leaders to the end so that the agreement is signed next week," said world heavyweight boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko. "We must force them to fulfill what they have promised."
One key EU demand in the free trade and political cooperation deal is the freeing of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — the heroine of the Orange Revolution and Yanukovych's arch-enemy. Tymoshenko said Friday she was ready to urge the EU to drop demands for her release if that would persuade Yanukoyvch to sign the agreement. There was no immediate reaction from the EU.
Tymoshenko, whose incarceration the West calls politically motivated, also urged Ukrainians to take to the streets to protest the government's decision.
"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.
An EU spokeswoman said Yanukovych is still welcome to attend a scheduled summit in Vilnius, Lithuania during which the two sides had been intending to sign the agreement.
"Our firm belief is that the future of Ukraine still lies in a strong relationship with the EU," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, the European Union's top diplomat.
Ukraine's decision to suspend preparations for the agreement 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. He also complained that the conditions the International Monetary Fund has set for rescuing Ukraine's struggling economy with a bailout loan were impossible to fulfill.
"I see absolutely no tragedy if we return to this issue six months from now," Azarov was quoted as saying Friday night by the Interfax news agency.
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 Concorde Capital, an investment firm in Kiev.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg on Friday, denied twisting Ukraine's arm, and, in turn, accused the EU of using "pressure and blackmail" against 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.
In the 2010 presidential election Yanukovych narrowly defeated Tymoshenko. The next year, Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges.
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.