Updated at: 12/12/2013 6:05 AM
By JIM HEINTZ and RAF CASERT
(AP) KIEV, Ukraine - Ukrainian officials were heading Thursday to Brussels for talks with the European Union as the bloc’s foreign policy chief said the country’s embattled president "intends to sign" at some point a trade and cooperation agreement he rejected last month.
Demonstrators angry over President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to shelve the long-anticipated agreement will be watching the meeting closely, worried that the leader could instead sign an agreement to join a Russia-led customs union when he and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet next week.
Yanukovych appears to be in a tough corner. As protesters furious over his decision to turn away from the EU clog the center of Kiev, he appears to be leaving his options open for the best deal he can get from his economically troubled country’s powerful suitors.
Russia has put heavy pressure on Ukraine to join its bloc, which also includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. Opponents say the bloc effectively tries to recreate the Soviet Union.
Yanukovych has said he is still open to the EU association agreement if terms can be worked out that provide more aid to Ukraine, which is concerned about the impact of losing trade with Russia. The talks between the EU and the Ukrainian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov could bring clarity on whether such aid is possible.
The Kiev protests swelled to hundreds of thousands after police violently broke up two early rallies. Demonstrators are riding a wave of high morale after riot police stood down from two confrontations with protesters on Wednesday.
Squadrons of helmeted police deployed at the protesters’ tent camp in Independence Square and at the protester-occupied city hall, but left hours later in the face of demonstrator defiance.
Protesters are reinforcing their positions in Kiev’s center, erecting sizeable new barricades across streets leading to Independence Square.
EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton, who talked with Yanukovych and opposition figures in Kiev this week, said it was clear that the short-term economic and financial issues Ukraine faces can be alleviated by signing the deal, which she said would bring in fresh investment from EU nations.
"Look, Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement," Ashton said on arrival for a meeting in Brussels early Thursday after her visit to Kiev.
Ashton said Ukraine’s economic problems "can be addressed by the support that not only comes from the EU institutions, but actually by showing that he has a serious economic plan in signing the association agreement."
The signature on the EU association agreement "will help to bring in the kind of investment that he needs," she said.
Ukrainians in the east look more favorably on closer ties with their giant neighbor. Yanukovych, who is seeking a bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund to keep Ukraine from going bankrupt, is sensitive to the economic disruption that trade disputes with Russia can cause.
Casert reported from Brussels.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)