KHARKIV, Ukraine – Having lost control of Crimea, Ukraine moved Friday to strengthen ties to Europe in a pact that may spark political unrest in the eastern part of the country where substantial populations of ethnic Russians want to secede as well.
The European Union and Ukraine signed elements of a political and economic agreement Friday, committing Ukraine to a deal that President Viktor Yanukovych had rejected in favor of better ties to Moscow.
That rejection sparked massive protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where most people favored closer ties to Europe. The protests led to Yanukovych's overthrow but also gave rise to anti-Kiev protests in Crimea and a vote there Sunday to secede.
Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially annexed Crimea.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, pro-Russia and and pro-Europe protesters have clashed sporadically for weeks. The city, near the border with Russia, was for decades under control of the communist Soviet Union, Russia's predecessor, and signs of this past are everywhere.
Soviet-style architecture is omnipresent as are statues of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet dictatorship, which dissolved in 1991. Unlike in Kiev, where Lenin's statue was torn down and its bust scrawled with graffiti, in Kharkiv, the Soviet founder towers over the city's central Freedom Square.
In late February, pro-Western demonstrators wanted to pull down the statue but decided against it because they worried it would have collapsed the roof of the subway below.
The attempt angered Ukrainians who look fondly on the days of the Soviet Union, some of whom hold a daily vigil at the statue. The mostly aging crowd accuses protesters in Kiev of being violent fascists and thugs trying to destroy a culture that venerates Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's victory over Adolf Hitler in World War II.
"My father says he would cut his pension in half, so riot police have money to throw rocks at protesters," said young communist Maxim Androsovsky, who went to Kiev to take part in protests against the pro-European group Maidan, named for the square where the anti-government protests were centered.
"There's no such thing as a peaceful Molotov cocktail," he added, referring to homemade gasoline bombs thrown by pro-Western protesters.
In a refutation of pro-Moscow sentiment Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed in Brussels core chapters of the agreement with the EU that Yanukovych rejected. Portions of the agreement on free trade will be signed after Ukraine has held presidential elections in May.
Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, said the agreement would bring Ukraine and its 46 million people closer to a "European way of life."
Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after the Ukrainian government issued a warrant for his arrest in the killing of more than 80 protesters, had advocated placing Ukraine in Russia's orbit and staying away from Europe. The EU snub was demanded by Putin in exchange for aid packages and cheaper gas.
Yanukovych pushed a law to give the Russian language greater status in Ukraine, and his ouster was not greeted here with the glee it received in Kiev.
There are many in Kharkiv who liked Yanukovych and prefer Ukraine be in Russia's Customer Union.
"Right now, most Kharkiv factories are only working two days a week," said Vlad Lummidushij, a communist representative on the city council. "Russians aren't ordering because they don't want to cooperate with the enemy. But (the EU) wants to turn us into a banana republic."
Kharkiv is 25 miles from the Russian border, an easy drive for Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers that appeared in Crimea weeks ago "to protect Russians and Russia's interests," according to Putin.
Moscow has said it has no plans to invade eastern Ukraine, but Europe and the United States say Russia is stirring up unrest as a pretext to an invasion.
"There have been Russians bursting into the eastern part of Ukraine and participating in demonstrations," said Susan Stewart, deputy head of research on Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"To some extent, they may have actually been responsible for demonstrations or advocating for joining or having a very close relation with Russia," she said. "I think that already Russia has contributed significantly to destabilize the east even if they haven't been there necessarily with military troops yet."
Yatsenyuk warned Russia his country was ready to respond with "military means" if Moscow intervenes. Ukraine has been mobilizing a national guard, and some eastern cities are organizing militias.
Marc Davidovich, a student here, says people are so worried that some are being admitted to hospitals because of stress.
"Their nerves did not hold out," he said.
Some pro-Russian activists in the east say they are not inviting Russia to invade. They would like the country to be more decentralized, so their region keeps a greater share of taxes, they say, and they don't want Russian troops to cross the border over the issue.
"Events in Kiev have forced us to stand further away from the central government," said Alexandr Alexandroviskiy, a political consultant to a federal deputy of Yanukovych's Party of the Regions. "But we don't want to live in any other country."
But it's unlikely that Kharkiv could do anything other than accept a takeover if Russian tanks rumbled in.
"There's a saying in Kharkiv: When the Russian tanks arrive in Kharkiv, they will be greeted with flowers," Alexandroviskiy said.
Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin