26 Nov 2013

Ukraine's leader defends putting deal on hold

5:02 pm on 26 November 2013

Ukraine's president has defended his move to put on hold a historic deal with the EU, amid continuing mass protest rallies.

Viktor Yanukovych said he was forced by economic necessity and the desire to protect those "most vulnerable".

The EU has accused Russia of exerting heavy economic pressure on Ukraine.

Clashes between protesters and police continued on Monday. Meanwhile, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko announced an indefinite hunger strike, the BBC reports.

Mr Yanukovych was speaking publicly for the first time since the announcement last Thursday that his government was halting preparations to sign the association and free trade agreements with the EU. The decision triggered big protests in Kiev and a number of other cities across Ukraine.

"I want peace and calm in our big Ukrainian family," Mr Yanukovych said in a video statement, describing himself as a "father". He stressed that his government had not given up attempts to bring closer ties between Ukraine and the EU.

"I would like to underline this: there is no alternative to the creation of a society of European standards in Ukraine and my policies on this path always have been, and will continue to be, consistent.

"But I would be dishonest and unfair if I had not taken care of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable, who may carry the brunt during a transitional period."

Last week, Mr Yanukovych's government said it was halting preparations for signing the treaties, amid concern for possible mass job losses in the short-term.

Opponents are accusing the leader of keeping talks with the EU alive while never intending to sign the deal at an EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on 28-29 November.

They also say he has bowed to growing pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants Kiev to join the Moscow-led Customs Union. The grouping also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Mr Putin denies the claims, instead accusing the EU of trying to force Kiev into singing the agreements.