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Ukraine's Yanukovich holds crisis talks as thousands mass for rally

A child holds a flag during a rally held by Pro-European integration protestors in Independence Square in central Kiev, December 13, 2013. R
A child holds a flag during a rally held by Pro-European integration protestors in Independence Square in central Kiev, December 13, 2013. R

By Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich made few concessions on Friday in crisis talks with the opposition, his first direct attempt to defuse weeks of unrest over a policy swerve to Russia away from Europe.

The meeting came as protesters streamed into the capital from mainly western regions for a mass rally on Sunday, boosting thousands already camped out on Kiev's Independence Square, focal point of recent demonstrations.

Russia, in the meantime, pointedly demanded that the European Union keep out of Ukrainian affairs.

Yanukovich, yielding to calls from the international community, began round-table talks with the opposition to try to find a way out of the conflict which has put Ukraine at the center of an East-West tug-of-war.

But with the opposition insisting on core demands such as the dismissal of his government, the talks seemed unlikely to head off another outpouring of anger against him on Sunday.

"This round-table was simply a declaration and not a single step was made to meet the opposition. I have the impression that the authorities today did not listen to a single one of the demands of the opposition," said boxing champion-turned-opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko.

Despite talks in Brussels by his government aimed at securing financial aid from the EU for his near-bankrupt country, Yanukovich still appeared on course to go to Moscow on December 17 to tie up a trade agreement which the opposition fears could slam the door on integration with Europe.

Highlighting the high geo-political stakes, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Friday said Ukraine must avoid a "tectonic split".

He said the appearance of EU politicians at Kiev protests was a "crude interference" in Ukraine's affairs - a clear reference to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU foreign ministers who have visited protest sites in recent weeks.

The national currency, the hryvnia, tumbled 0.4 percent on Friday to 8.31 to the dollar - its lowest level since 2009 - as the anti-government protests continued to jangle market nerves.

The round-table talks represented the first direct encounter any of the three opposition leaders have had with Yanukovich in months of crisis around his policy towards Europe.

This came to a head on November 21 when his government suddenly backed off a landmark trade-and-political agreement with the European Union after years of preparation and announced it was reviving trade relations instead with former overseer Moscow.

Since then the capital has been roiled by sometimes harshly handled pro-Europe rallies, involving hundreds of thousands of people at the weekends, who accuse Yanukovich of turning the clock back and selling out national interests to the Kremlin.

The opposition leaders indicated they would insist that Yanukovich meet their core demands which include the dismissal of the government and early elections.

"We will pass on to him (Yanukovich) your demands. We will fight for our common victory," said Arseny Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister, told crowds on Kiev's Independence Square which is known colloquially as the 'maidan'.

The two other opposition leaders, Klitschko and far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok, stood alongside him as he spoke.

POLICE HEAVY-HANDEDNESS

In remarks to the round-table Yanukovich sought to take a neutral stance in the conflict which has involved police heavy-handedness against peaceful protesters that has drawn condemnation from the international community.

"Any instability negatively influences not only the image of the country but the life of people, the stability of the economy which is very unsteady," he said. "I am outraged by the radical acts which have taken place on the 'maidan', as much as from 'provocateurs' as from the security bodies which did not behave correctly."

He defended his policy shift, repeating that Ukraine's economic ills could not be cured without "restoration of normal trade relations with Russia."

In a gesture of appeasement, Yanukovich said he would propose an amnesty for those detained at recent mass street protests - but he made no indication of offering up Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as demanded by the opposition.

Yatsenyuk, speaking to the round-table, was insistent on Azarov's dismissal and that of the interior minister who is held responsible by the protesters for excessive force by police.

"Those who gave the criminal orders and those who carried them out must bear responsibility so that the whole country can see that no-one can lay a hand on peaceful people ... This government personally carries responsibility for the political and economic crisis," he said.

Barring a startling concession by Yanukovich - which seems improbable - Friday's round-table seemed unlikely to stop another mass display of street anger on Sunday.

The protests began as pro-Europe demonstrations but have now morphed into a broader protest against perceived corruption and sleaze in the country Yanukovich has led for nearly four years.

Demonstrators have re-built barricades, torn down by police, using public benches, metal barriers and wire-netting to fence off Independence Square, epicenter of Sunday's planned rally.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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