Ukrainian president holds talks, opposition calls bluff


Protesters have rebuilt their barricades on Independence Square.


Brendan Hoffman

MOSCOW, Russia — Embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych took his most significant steps yet on Friday toward addressing the massive anti-government demonstrations rocking his country, proposing amnesty for jailed protesters and meeting with opposition leaders for the first time.

But a resolution to the weeks-long political crisis remained elusive, as opposition leaders sought to call his bluff and repeated their demands for sacking the government over its refusal to sign key agreements with the EU and heavy-handed crackdown on protests.

The lack of movement will probably intensify a political stalemate that has driven both the opposition and ruling elites into further entrenchment.

“This round-table was simply a declaration and not a single step was made to meet the opposition,” Reuters reported Vitali Klitschko, a boxing champion and leader of the UDAR opposition party, as saying.

“I have the impression that the authorities today did not listen to a single one of the demands of the opposition.”

The jailed protesters — detained after violent clashes two weeks ago — were reportedly released on Friday, but their criminal cases remain open.

Yanukovych extended the amnesty offer as “guarantees that the process of confrontation will stop,” but also suggested that both sides were to blame. Recent police crackdowns have only helped consolidate the anti-regime anger in Kyiv.

“I am outraged by the radical actions on both sides… from the side of provocateurs and from the side of the security forces, which have not always behaved properly,” the Associated Press reported him as saying.

He also suggested that protesters who had seized key administrative buildings in Kyiv — including city hall and a large trade union building opposite Independence Square, the nerve center of the demonstrations — were “financed,” although he didn’t speculate about the alleged source.

“We need to give a fair and objective answer to these questions,” he said.

While Yanukovych proposed a moratorium on the further use of force, opposition leaders expressed doubts. They warned supporters about what they believe is a plan by the authorities to instigate violence during an upcoming rally this Sunday using state-sponsored, civilian thugs, local media reported.

Under growing international pressure, Yanukovych has signaled that he still intends to sign the sweeping political and trade pacts with the EU.

But on Friday, he said the initial terms of the deal were “in violation of national interests” for a country analysts say is teetering on the brink of default. He has sent officials to Brussels to negotiate financial support and explore the potential for signing the agreements early next year, officials say.

Yanukovych is also still set for a visit to Moscow early next week, however, when he is expected to sign trade agreements in a move that may only further anger protesters.

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The developments take place as billionaire Rinat Akhmetov — Ukraine’s richest man and seen as a Yanukovych ally — released a cautious statement calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

It was the first time the oligarch, a typically shadowy figure who rarely speaks publicly, personally addressed the ongoing political crisis. Experts have sought to track the movements and loyalties of Ukraine’s oligarchs, who are believed to hold significant sway over the future course of events in Ukraine.

“Politicians, government officials, opposition, and moral leaders of the country must sit down at the negotiating table and make a decision we will be proud of,” the statement read.

He added that the rallies were a sign that Ukraine is a “free, democratic country,” but refrained from taking any sides in the standoff.

“I believe that now, at this challenging moment for our country, it is important to keep a cool head and take a balanced approach.”

Protests are expected to swell again this weekend.