Standing onstage under an ash-streaked sky, Mr. Lutsenko felt a powerful sense of déjà vu — and a deep need to apologize.
“I am sure that every person who stood at the glorious Orange Square nine years ago has to do the same,” he told the crowd.
“I would like you to accept my personal apologies for what was not finished.”
For the second time in a decade, Ukraine is in turmoil, with tens of thousands of protesters in recent days loudly demanding that the country shake off its post-Soviet identity and move once and for all into the orbit of a more prosperous Europe.
They exploded in anger last week when their leaders, buckling under pressure from Moscow, said they would walk away from a deal that many here, especially the young, see as a vital step in escaping the clutches of the Kremlin and joining fellow ex-satellite countries of Eastern Europe on a path to modernization and greater wealth.
At stake here is not just the fate of a free-trade pact but whether the hardball tactics of Russia, willing to use very bit of economic muscle — including trade threats and its stranglehold on energy supplies — to exert blunt force in negotiations, will prevail over the national aspirations of millions of people.
The effort to draw in Ukraine and other ex-Soviet republics is also crucial to Europe, which has invested heavily in it and can ill afford a humiliating defeat at a time when its stature is already being called into doubt by the continuing economic strains within the euro zone.
Calls for Europe to answer the Kremlin’s threats of retaliatory sanctions against Ukraine with sanctions against Russia are raising the prospect of a bitter trade war that could complicate numerous efforts by Western powers to cooperate with Russia on security matters.
“Russia really depends on the EU buying gas and all this other stuff, “ said Andreas Umland, who teaches political science at Kiev-Mohyla Academy here.
“The EU has leverage.”
With street protests continuing in Kiev and cities across the country on Tuesday, there was a distinct sense that Ukraine has been here before.
More than 20 years after declaring its freedom and hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country of 46 million remains caught between Russia and the West, its aspirations for independence upended by the rivalries of bigger powers, its domestic politics riven by corruption, violence, revenge and ethno-regional strife, its people impoverished and fearful about the future.
Many Ukrainians say they regard the country’s political leaders since the end of the Soviet era to be a collective failure.
At the same time, they say they recognize the constraints of being almost entirely dependent on Russia for energy, especially natural gas for heat, as well as the historic burden of being home to vital Russian military assets, including major installations for its Black Sea fleet.
“The foundation has to be completely changed in our country, so that it would not remain a post-Soviet barrack temporarily repainted in yellow and blue,” Mr. Lutsenko told the crowd, referring to the colors of the country’s flag.
“We have to understand that not only the president has to be changed but the entire system.”
Mr. Lutsenko knows the perils of the system well.
From his role as field commander, he went on to serve as a leader in Parliament and as the interior minister, under President Viktor A. Yushchenko, who was poisoned by dioxin in an assassination attempt during the disputed 2004 election.
After Viktor F. Yanukovich, the revolution’s antihero, won the presidency in 2010, Mr. Lutsenko was arrested and jailed on abuse of authority charges, only to be pardoned earlier this year as Mr. Yanukovich came under pressure from the West.
Supporters of European integration had been pinning their hopes on the political and trade agreements, which had been in the works for more than four years, and Mr. Yanukovich had long talked about signing them at a major conference that begins on Thursday in Vilnius, Lithuania.
In contrast with 2004, they say they are focused entirely on raising standards of living, and putting Ukraine on track to become a member of the European Union so they could obtain the benefits that they see are now enjoyed by neighboring Poland and by the fellow ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics.
“I want to live in a country where the law is not just a word in the dictionary,” said Kateryna Zhemchuzhnykova, 25, a journalist who has been leading protests in the city of Donetsk in the traditionally Russia-friendly eastern half of Ukraine.
She said she wanted a country “where people are free to tell what they think; to do what they want; to go where they dream.”
Ms. Zhemchuzhnykova said that while her demonstrations had been relatively small, numbering 150 to 200 people each evening, and that protesters had faced some heckling, there had been no rallies in Donetsk in opposition to the accords with the European Union.
Taras Berezovets, a political consultant whose clients include members of Parliament, said expectations were raised by the president, partly with an eye to the 2015 election.
“Yanukovich promised them something; he promised them Europe,” Mr. Berezovets said in an interview.
Ukraine’s domestic politics are deeply complicated by ethno-cultural, religious and linguistic divisions.
The mostly Russian-speaking and Russian Orthodox eastern and southern sections of the country tend to favor close ties with Moscow.
In the West, Ukrainian speakers predominate, the Ukrainian Catholic Church has many adherents and Russia is regarded with suspicion or even hostility.
In Kiev on Wednesday, there were scattered reports of protesters clashing with the riot police.
Also, the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, said she had begun a hunger strike in support of protesters.
Ukraine is also a country with a bloody and tragic history.
Experts say about 7.5 million people died in Ukraine during World War II.
Throughout its history, it has been dominated by larger powers, including Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Ukraine has also been a major battleground, including a devastating 30-year stretch of war in the 1600s that involved Russians, Cossacks, Poles and Turks.
Russia’s desire to dominate is taken for granted in Ukraine.
“This problem is going on for several hundred years; Ukraine lives in a polygon between Moscow, Istanbul and Warsaw,” Mr. Lutsenko said in an interview.
“Figuratively speaking, the two heads of the Russian eagle from its coat of arms are looking in different directions, but every day they try to bite Ukraine.”
He said Russia used several levers of power, including its ability to egg on separatist movements in the Ukrainian south, the Russian Orthodox Church’s ability to stoke unrest, the possibility of levying trade sanctions and, of course, the ability to shut down natural gas pipelines.
Mr. Lutsenko said that in two and a half years in prison he had spent much of his time thinking about Ukraine’s problems and why the 2004 revolution failed, and that Ukraine needed to develop an entirely new approach.
He has formed a new political party called the Third Ukrainian Republic and hopes to help the process along.
European officials have said that Russia had threatened to retaliate with severe trade sanctions that would be particularly devastating in eastern Ukraine, a main base of political support for Mr. Yanukovich.
Ukraine is already facing a severe economic crisis and has been in talks for months about securing a loan package from the International Monetary Fund.
Many Ukrainians have tempered their criticism, hoping Mr. Yanukovich will somehow resurrect the agreements and sign them at the Vilnius conference, which he still plans to attend.
“He can either become a hero, or become the biggest loser in Ukrainian history,” Mr. Berezovets said.
“Whatever happens, the only man that people hold responsible for failure is Yanukovich himself. He has personalized European integration to that extent.”
Source: The New York Times