Ukraine's president calls for dialogue, protesters fear crackdown


A woman attaches a flower to the shield of a riot policeman blocking the access to Kyiv city center on December 9, 2013.



KYIV, Ukraine — A jovial emcee worked the crowd between renditions of popular rock songs as small tides of bundled, cheery demonstrators — waving flags and singing along — ebbed and flowed from the stage area.

“Glory to Ukraine!” shouted a guest speaker, eliciting a resounding response from the crowd: “Glory to its heroes!”

But the carnival-like atmosphere was deceiving.

Within a several hundred-yard radius, columns of well-equipped police stood choking central streets where thousands of protesters who have flooded downtown Kyiv had free rein just a day earlier.

Independence Square, the bustling nerve center of the demonstrations, was far less populated than previous days and appeared eerily barren amid freezing temperatures and a thick blanket of snow.

Nearby cafes, normally busy, stood dark and empty.

Although embattled President Viktor Yanukovych proposed on Monday to hold roundtable talks with opposition leaders who are seeking the government’s ouster, the feeling in Kyiv was not one of conciliation.

Yanukovych’s announcement coincided with a heightened police presence unprecedented in Kyiv since a violent crackdown last weekend. And while no major clashes were reported, it has nevertheless stoked fears that the authorities are determined to disperse the sprawling anti-government protests once and for all.

“The probability is very high,” said Ivan Rybachyk, a 40-year-old Kyiv resident who was helping to reinforce barricades around the square.

“We’re trying to keep things peaceful, but whatever happens — happens.”

Yanukovych’s proposal to meet with the opposition “in order to find compromise in the given situation,” according to his press service, arrived as police steadily sought to regain ground taken in recent days by energized protesters.

By Monday evening, police had dismantled several makeshift barricades and tent camps erected earlier near government buildings.

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They have so far refrained from the heavy-handed tactics witnessed last week, when riot police violently cleared Independence Square of mostly sleeping students and left scores beaten and bloody.

But they have formed columns along an intersection near the square as well as several others by government buildings, signaling an effort to squeeze in a protest that only yesterday reached deep into the city’s government quarters.

At one intersection, near the Presidential Administration, a row of riot police stood face-to-face with a line of protesters wearing helmets and other protective gear. The demonstrators formed a human chain, in an attempt to prevent provocations by keeping a buffer between fellow demonstrators and the riot police.

On Monday, authorities also raided the headquarters of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party and confiscated servers, citing a court order.

The heightened tensions come a day before Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s top diplomat, is scheduled to arrive in Kyiv in a bid to facilitate negotiations between the ruling government and the opposition.

Some experts in Kyiv say the authorities are determined to strengthen their hand ahead of a visit by a top European official.

“Tonight is their last chance to create a violent scenario, which is why they’re provoking people,” said Serhiy Taran, head of the International Democracy Institute.

“They want to create an image of Kyiv that makes it clear it would be impossible to negotiate with them.”

It remains to be seen whether Yanukovych follows up on his offer for dialogue.

The move has already drawn fire from many protesters, who slammed his virtual silence since the protests reached their current phase last week.

After the crackdown on the square last weekend, Yanukovych flew to China on a working visit, after which he met Russian President Vladimir Putin in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

“I don’t believe it,” said Vitaliy Shevchenko, a 37-year-old business manager, of the offer for talks. “I think he’s biding time, thinking about what to do next.”

Fears of an imminent crackdown had been building all day here, fed largely by local media reports, the increased police presence and the closure of several main subway stops in the city center.

Protesters in Kyiv’s occupied city hall, one of the strategic bases for the rallies, were shuffling around busily, reinforcing barricades inside. Authorities gave protesters until Monday to clear that area and another occupied building on Independence Square or face forced eviction.

While there was no sign of police movement, volunteer security guards nevertheless sought to maintain order, urging supporters to remain calm and not give in to provocations.

The rasping of unfurled tape echoed throughout the spacious, Stalinist hall as demonstrators fixed pieces of foam onto their arms — makeshift pads against police batons.

Outside the main council room, Liudmyla Kompanyets, a motherly 70-year-old from central Ukraine, was on her hands and needs cutting out pieces of padding.

“I don’t know if there will be a dispersal or not, but this is all for self-defense,” she said.

She added that she has spent her third day at city hall, doing whatever she could to help protesters keep up momentum against a government she says deprives “these kids” of a brighter future.

“It forces me to tears — I cry day and night for them.”