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KIEV, Ukraine – Several thousand Ukrainian students ditched classes on Tuesday and joined protests in the center of Kiev against the government's abrupt move to freeze integration with the West and tilt toward Moscow.
Kiev announced last week that it was halting preparations for the signing of a political and trade agreement with the European Union, after Russia imposed trade restrictions and threatened more to come.
Up to 3,000 students from Kiev universities walked out of lecture halls and marched through Kiev to join several thousand other protesters on two central squares, calling on President Viktor Yanukovych to change his mind and sign the agreement with the EU at a summit on Friday.
As Kiev intensified talks with Brussels in recent months, Russia restricted imports of Ukrainian steel, chocolates and other products, which Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said reduced this year's exports by $6.5 billion. Still, Azarov described Ukrainian-Russian relations as "absolutely normal," and instead blamed Kiev's turnaround on Brussels, saying it refused to provide financial aid to the struggling Ukrainian economy.
"Let us say this straight away: The European Union provided no help for us here, other than general declarations," Azarov told foreign reporters. "We received no concrete help."
Azarov called for trilateral talks with Russia, Ukraine and the EU and said the issue of Ukraine's integration with the 28-member bloc can be taken up again at a summit next spring, but added that Kiev was now focusing on restoring ties with Russia. In Brussels, officials said they were ready to continue negotiations with Ukraine in the coming months.
Yanukovych is still planning to attend the EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, according to his website.
Ukraine's decision was seen as a big victory for Russia, which does not want to lose its big Slavic neighbor -- which had long been part of the Russian and Soviet empires -- to the West. In a sign of rapprochement, Russia announced on Tuesday that it would lift its ban on Ukrainian chocolates, which it deemed unsafe just a few months ago.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin squashed claims by the Ukrainian government that Russia was now willing to renegotiate the contract for natural gas supplies. Ukraine has complained for years that the price it pays for Russian gas is unfairly high.
About 7,000 activists rallied in Kiev's two central squares in an echo of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned a rigged election and brought a pro-Western government to power. They waved EU flags and warmed themselves around bonfires.
"We feel ourselves to be part of Europe and now the authorities want to take this identity away from us," said Yehor Mnishek, a student from Kiev. "It's like cutting off someone's arm or head."
More rallies were planned in the run-up to the summit and over the weekend. While the protests have been largely peaceful, there have been several scuffles between radical activists and riot police in which tear gas was used. Azarov said that police will treat protesters with respect, but will not allow provocations.
"The more the Kremlin pressures and threatens Ukraine, the stronger Ukrainians' pro-European sentiment becomes," said political analyst Vadim Karasyov.