Ukraine president offers protesters olive branch

A girl offers sweets to riot policemen standing guard in the centre of Kiev yesterday. Pic: Getty

Ukraine’s embattled president Viktor Yanukovych has promised that some demonstrators arrested in the massive protests sweeping the capital will be released, part of a bid to defuse a political stand-off that is threatening his leadership.

Mr Yanukovych also vowed to renew talks with the European Union on concluding a much-awaited trade and political agreement, after his refusal to sign the deal last month prompted the biggest protests since 2004’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution, some drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Kiev’s streets.

Mr Yanukovych indicated he was still prepared to sign the deal at a summit in spring, but only if the EU can offer better financial terms.”We want to achieve conditions which satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people,” he said in a televised meeting with his three predecessors meant to find a solution to the stand-off. “If we find understanding and if such compromises are reached, the signature will be put” on paper.

Three weeks of protests against Mr Yanukovych’s decision to align with Russia have grown larger and more vehement after police twice violently dispersed demonstrators. Tensions escalated even further on Monday when armed law enforcement troops stormed the office of the top opposition party, breaking glasses and smashing doors.

The opposition is demanding the release of the roughly dozen protesters who remain in jail and calling for the government to be replaced by one committed to European integration. It was unclear whether Mr Yanukovych’s hedging offers would bring the sides closer together.Mr Yanukovych said that he has asked the prosecutor-general to ensure the release of some of the protesters – those who have not committed grave crimes and who have children or families.

Mr Yanukovych appeared unreceptive to the criticism voiced by Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first president after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, who said that beating protesters is unacceptable.

During a separate event, Mr Kravchuk called for a nationwide round table involving the authorities and opposition members, but it was unclear when or how such a meeting would take place.

Ukraine’s economy has been in recession for more than a year, and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default. Moscow has worked aggressively to derail the deal with the EU and lure Kiev into its own economic group by offering price discounts and loans as well as imposing painful trade restrictions.


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