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psf/WRAPUP 2-Police, pro-Europe protesters clash in Ukraine, EU condemns Russia

Luke Baker and Richard Balmforth
Monday, 25 Nov 2013 | 10:44 AM ET

Russia@ (Adds quotes from PM, protesters)

* Ukraine torn again between East and West

* EU says trade pact offer still on table

* Ukrainian police use tear gas against protesters

BRUSSELS/KIEV, Nov 25 (Reuters) - The European Union expressed strong disapproval on Monday of Russian pressure on Ukraine to reject an EU trade deal, while police fired tear gas at pro-Europe protesters in the former Soviet republic, torn once more between East and West.

Ukraine had been expected to sign a far-reaching trade and political association agreement with the EU at a summit in Vilnius on Friday, the biggest prize in Brussels' efforts to draw states in the former Communist East closer to the EU fold.

But it suddenly announced last week it had decided instead to seek closer trade relations with Moscow.

The decision followed months of Russian pressure, including threats to cut off Ukraine's gas supplies and impose trade restrictions. Moscow has accused the European Union of putting the squeeze on Kiev, too.

Protests have since broken out on the streets of Kiev, with tens of thousands of people demonstrating in favour of closer ties with the European Union, the biggest outpouring since its pro-democracy Orange Revolution nine years ago.

In unusually firm language on Monday, the EU's two most senior officials, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, denounced Russia's actions and said the EU offer remained on the table.

"The European Union will not force Ukraine, or any other partner, to choose between the European Union or any other regional entity," they said in a joint statement.

"We therefore strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect."

VIOLENT PROTESTS

There were further, smaller protests on Monday in Kiev, with Ukrainian police clashing with demonstrators and, in a brief incident, firing teargas to try to control a group of protesters.

Some saw the protest as part of a wider struggle in a country that houses both native Ukrainian and Russian speakers and which many Russians see as culturally part of their nation.

"I have turned out for revolution because I have understood that the promises of Yanukovich to go into Europe were just pure comedy," said Anatoly Gurkalyuk, 33, a builder.

At the end of last week, the EU appeared minded to quietly accept Ukraine's decision to back away from the trade deal. But the protests - with their hallmarks of Ukraine's 'orange' democracy drive of 2004-2005 - look to have spurred the EU into a renewed effort to court Ukraine.

"The offer of signing an unprecedented association agreement and a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement is still on the table," the joint EU statement read.

"It is up to Ukraine to freely decide what kind of engagement they seek with the European Union. Ukrainian citizens have shown again these last days that they fully understand and embrace the historic nature of the European association."

While it seems unlikely Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will have another change of mind between now and the Vilnius summit, he might still attend the event, which includes a dinner with EU leaders on Thursday night.

EU officials said the occasion might be an opportunity for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, to convince him Yanukovich of the benefits of looking West, even if he doesn't budge now. But Yanukovich has barely spoken publicly since the announcement to withdraw from the EU deal, and may not pitch up in Vilnius.

It remains unclear what Russian President Vladimir Putin said to Yanukovich to convince him to turn away from the EU.

But diplomatic sources in Moscow, Kiev and Brussels have indicated it probably involved a combination of threats to withdraw political support, targeted economic pressure and the inducement of cheaper Russian gas.

Russia set up its own customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2010 and wants Ukraine, as well as other former Soviet republics, to join it. Ultimately, it sees the customs union as an alternative to the 28-member European Union.

COSTS AND BENEFITS

Yanukovich's prime minister reproached the EU for pressing Ukraine to fulfil reform criteria, including releasing jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Mykola Azarov said the IMF's refusal to soften its terms for fresh financial assistance had been 'the last straw'.

"We did all we could for Ukraine to be able to go, prepared, to the Vilnius summit. The European Union all the time was putting conditions," Azarov told Russia's First Channel TV on Sunday evening.

EU officials have said Russia told Ukraine that introducing EU rules would have cost as much as $100 billion, while Russia cutting off trade would have hurt the country to the tune $500 billion, although it is not clear over what period.

At the same time, while an EU free-trade deal might help Ukrainian business and growth over time, it is not a first step towards EU membership, the ultimate prize. And it was not clear whether signing up with the EU would have done much to bolster Yanukovich's reelection hopes in 2015, either.

One of the many issues Brussels wanted Yanukovich to resolve before signing the deal was the imprisonment of former prime minister Tymoshenko, a bitter Yanukovich rival and a potential election challenger.

Now Ukraine has backed away, there is less pressure on Yanukovich to meet demands to free Tymoshenko and end "selective justice", or to get to grips with the widespread corruption and malfeasance that the EU regards as plaguing Ukraine.

The EU's statement indicates more than anything a desire to remain open and put an end to the sense of a zero-sum game with Russia over the vast country wedged between the two.

While there seems little prospect of Yanukovich suddenly signing up in Vilnius, it is possible he will drift back to the EU, especially if a large number of Ukraine's 46 million citizens demand it.

"The EU stands ready to be more open and more supportive to those who are willing to engage in reforms and modernisation," Van Rompuy and Barroso said.

"Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our Eastern partners and their other neighbours, such as Russia. The Eastern Partnership is conceived as a win-win where we all stand to gain."

(Writing by Luke Baker; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalya Zinets in Kiev; editing by Philippa Fletcher)