By Richard Balmforth
KIEV (Reuters) - Europe's envoys have beaten a path to Viktor Yanukovich's door almost daily for months to clear the way for a historic trade pact between Ukraine and the European Union.
But the shock of EU leaders when his government last week pulled the plug on the deal - with only days to go to an EU summit - suggests they gained little insight into the mind of a hard-to-read president who is a riddle both at home and abroad.
EU leaders gather in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on Thursday and had expected to greet the Ukrainian there as a partner in a far-reaching accord that would extend EU democratic values deep into former Soviet territory.
They will instead face a hard-nosed, Soviet-style ruler who has turned summit preparations into a geopolitical bargaining game, keeping a weather eye on his support among powerfully rich business "oligarchs" as he aims for re-election in 2015.
The burly 63-year-old will still attend the summit despite not signing the pact. Instead, fellow leaders will hear a jarring message that can be summed up as: "If you want to keep me from doing a deal with Russia, put up more cash."
"Candy in a pretty wrapper" is how Yanukovich described on Tuesday the financial assistance of 610 million euros ($827 million) repeatedly offered by Brussels. Shifting Ukraine's economy onto European Union standards would require not less than $20 billion per year, he said.
With EU leaders on edge over the U-turn in Ukrainian policy and suspicious of what looks like crude brinkmanship, the scene is set for a testy and fraught encounter at the two-day summit, where Yanukovich will attend a gala dinner on Thursday.
The ghost at the banquet will be Yulia Tymoshenko.
Almost certainly, some EU leaders will want to buttonhole Yanukovich on his failure to release from prison the opponent he sees as a threat to his re-election. Tymoshenko, who spent her 53rd birthday on hunger strike on Wednesday, was the object of an 18-month EU humanitarian mission tied to the trade deal.
After Brussels' negotiators failed to secure her freedom, she declared she would not eat in solidarity with protesters rallying in Kiev to demand Yanukovich embrace the EU agreement.
An electrician from near the gritty coal town of Donetsk on Ukraine's eastern border with Russia, Yanukovich comes with all the diplomas of a tough background, including two spells in Soviet prisons for theft and assault when he was a youth.
These were struck from public record when he entered politics. He rose to become governor of Donetsk, industrial base for some of post-Soviet Ukraine's biggest fortunes, and was later prime minister under President Leonid Kuchma.
His first big setback, which insiders say explains a lot of his political reflexes today, came in 2004 when he was elected president, only to see it snatched from him by the Orange Revolution protests against sleaze and electoral fraud.
The field marshal of those protests was the peasant-braided Tymoshenko - and the fuse was lit for an enmity that burns to this day. Narrowly beaten to the presidency by Yanukovich in 2010, Tymoshenko was jailed the following year for abusing her office while prime minister to President Viktor Yushchenko.
European Union leaders see her as a political detainee.
After his comeback, Yanukovich appeared to justify Western concerns that he might steer Ukraine closer to Moscow by agreeing quickly to extend base rights for the Russian Black Sea fleet at the Crimean port of Sevastopol until 2042.
But, with Russia still refusing to offer a cheaper price for strategic supplies of gas, he continued to pursue a path towards much closer cooperation with the European Union. The trade pact on offer would give his cash-strapped country access to an enormous market and prospects of big investment.
For all that, his body talk often still resembles that of a Soviet-era leader. Despite having poor personal relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he went to Moscow on November 9 - as the Vilnius EU summit neared - for an unexplained meeting. It only aroused EU suspicions of double-dealing.
"Yanukovich is not a person who relies on rational calculations. His style of thinking differs from Western politicians who prefer a rational analysis of the situation. Yanukovich relies on intuition, an inner voice and his own experience," said independent analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
"He is a classic post-Soviet politician and differs sharply from Western colleagues," said Fesenko, of the Penta think-tank.
He is difficult to fathom, a man who plays his cards close to his chest and remains hard to read even by those close to him. "The circle of his acquaintances is very narrow and we even do not know who his closest people are, who he goes hunting with, who he plays tennis with," said Fesenko.
One of the difficulties EU envoys have faced up to now in dealing with him on the Tymoshenko issue - a deeply personal one for Yanukovich given past grudges - is that he regards the negotiations as pressure, diplomats say.
And such pressure does not always work. "He has a strong character," said political analyst Mikhailo Pohrebynsky. "He does not give in to pressure until he can no longer resist it."
Effectively dismissing the long diplomatic effort by the EU to secure her release, Yanukovich said on Wednesday: "The issue of Yulia Tymoshenko should not be a hindrance to Ukraine's European integration. What is the European Union - a court?"
If there is a mismatch in style, however, the conventional wisdom is that Yanukovich still wants to ally his country of 46 million with the West rather than pass over control of foreign trade policy to Moscow - something that would lose him the vital support of wealthy entrepreneurs.
A feature of his rule has been consolidation of the power of the oligarchs and the enrichment of an inner circle of relatives and friends that Ukrainians call "The Family" - among these Yanukovich's elder son, Oleksander.
And it is taken as a given of political life in Kiev that his main strategic aim is to win re-election for a further five years in 2015. Given the popularity of access to the West, that means he must maintain dialogue, however difficult, with the EU.
Despite his dislike of being lectured to, Yanukovich appears steeled to being taken to task by EU leaders. Burning bridges with the EU altogether would only inflame the kind of discontent seen in Kiev this week and endanger his re-election.
"Yanukovich will show that he does not want to quit the negotiating process, that he is ready to continue," Fesenko said. "He does not want to anger the West, or break off relations, which is important for him before the 2015 elections."
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)