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Ukraine at a crossroads

More than 100,000 demonstrators flooded the streets of Ukraine’s capital over the weekend after President Viktor Yanukovych called off talks on a free-trade agreement with the European Union. As recently as two months ago, Yanukovych promised to approve the landmark deal, which would have pushed the former Soviet republic toward Brussels and away from Moscow. That promise should be honored.

A more democratic Ukraine with closer ties to the EU, rather than Russia, is in the best interest of the United States. But persuading the government to change its mind again will be no small hurdle. Ukraine depends on imports of Russian gas, and pipelines across Ukraine pump Russian gas to many EU states. On Friday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Ukraine couldn’t afford a deal with the EU that hurts trade with Russia. As a warning, Russia has already imposed painful restrictions on some Ukrainian exports.

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Indeed, the turnaround is a huge victory for the Kremlin, which has been lobbying hard against the EU deal. Russia has its own customs union with two other former Soviet republics — Belarus and Kazakhstan — and has been urging Ukraine to join it. Russian President Vladimir Putin surely also feels threatened by a more democratic Ukraine, which would stand in sharp contrast with his own government’s manipulated elections and intolerance for dissent.

A further sticking point in the EU negotiations is the jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s top political opponent. Her imprisonment is entirely politically motivated, and Brussels has rightly said that it won’t sign the deal unless she is freed. But Yanukovych, who only narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in 2010, appears more concerned that her release would mean a new challenge to his reelection in 2015.

Polls consistently show broad popular support for integrating with the European Union, giving Ukrainian businesses better access to Europe’s $16 trillion economy and more than 500 million potential customers. Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan certainly can’t offer comparable markets.

The weekend’s protests were the biggest in Kiev since the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned a fraudulent presidential election and brought a Western-leaning government to power. The crowds, waving banners, chanted, “We are together. We are united. We are Europe.” Yanukovych would be wise to listen.

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