Ukraine crisis: Yanukovych ready to resume EU talks

Steve Rosenberg reports from the protest camps.

President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine has said government officials could visit Brussels this week to resume talks on the EU association agreement.

By withdrawing just before the agreement was due to be signed last month, Mr Yanukovych sparked huge street protests by the opposition.

Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was cheered by crowds on a visit to Kiev's main protest site.

Police in the city have moved to break the blockade of government buildings.

Several people were hurt overnight as riot police advanced on protesters, dismantling a number of barricades in the centre of the capital.

But no action was taken against the main opposition camp on Independence Square, where several thousand protesters remained on Tuesday, huddling around braziers to keep warm.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in Kiev, demanding the resignation of the government within 48 hours.

From left: Viktor Yushchenko, Viktor Yanukovych, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, in Kiev, 10 December President Yanukovych (centre) discussed the crisis with his three predecessors as leader of Ukraine.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (centre) visits Kiev's Independence Square - the Maidan. Photo: 10 December 2013 Catherine Ashton (centre) was cheered by protesters at the Maidan, who chanted: "Thank you! Europe!"
Riot police guard the Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building in Kiev, 10 December Riot police are guarding government buildings in Kiev to keep away demonstrators.
Protesters drag firewood through Kiev, 10 December Protesters remain camped out in the snow, warming themselves around wood fires.
Scuffles

President Yanukovych said a working group led by a deputy prime minister would "probably" go to Brussels on Wednesday to resume work with the European Commission on the association agreement.

Timeline of events

  • 21 Nov: Government suspends preparations for signing of EU association agreement, triggering first protests
  • 28-29 Nov: EU summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, goes ahead without Ukraine initialling the deal
  • 30 Nov: Police violence leads to bigger protests in Kiev, with hundreds of thousands on streets at subsequent two weekends
  • 8 Dec: Biggest protest so far culminates with toppling of Lenin statue

However, Mr Yanukovych appears to have again stressed the need to strengthen economic ties with Russia, which strongly opposes the EU agreement.

"We cannot talk about the future without talking about restoring trade relations with Russia," he added, quoted by Reuters news agency.

Mr Yanukovych discussed the crisis at a televised round table on Tuesday with his three predecessors as president of Ukraine - Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko. No representatives of the main opposition or street demonstrators were present.

The president said he had asked the prosecutor general to ensure the release of some protesters detained last month - those who had not committed grave crimes and who had children or families.

Scuffles

These are the largest street protests since the Orange Revolution in 2004. On each of the last three Sundays, crowds estimated at 100,000 or more have flooded central Kiev.

On Monday, phalanxes of riot police, their helmets caked in snow, moved to clear Kiev's government district of protesters, tearing down barricades leading to the presidency, cabinet offices and parliament.

Scuffles broke out and, while there were no immediate official reports of injuries, members of Svoboda said several people had been hurt. Two police officers were also reportedly injured.

The unrest in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine escalated after police used violence against protesters on 30 November.

The crisis has highlighted divisions in Ukraine, with many in the east of the country more sympathetic to Russia, and opposing both closer links with the EU and the anti-government protests.

However, a number of demonstrators have been insisting that the protests are not about "east versus west", but about a total "reboot" of what they describe as the current corrupt system.

'Serious risk'

Baroness Ashton met Mr Yanukovych for three-and-a-half hours, her press service said, without giving details.

She later visited the protest camp on Independence Square, which is widely known as the Maidan.

"I make it clear that I come here in order to be of assistance. And to show to all the people that I meet, that we really do care about all the country. "

She then held talks with Ukraine's main opposition leaders.

Speaking before the visit to Maidan, Baroness Ashton voiced concern about a police raid on the headquarters of Ukraine's biggest opposition party, Fatherland.

Computer servers were removed during the raid on the party led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in prison since 2011 over a controversial gas contract with Russia.

"I follow with concern the reports that police forces forcibly entered the office of the biggest opposition party," Baroness Ashton said in a statement.

In a speech to the European Parliament, the EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fuele said the EU was ready to help Ukraine financially "including through topping up IMF loans with macro-financial assistance [and] stepping up the European Union's financial assistance programmes", but it was not clear whether this was an increase over previous offers.

Mr Yanukovych has complained of the cost of upgrading Ukraine's economy to EU standards, saying 20bn euros (£16.7bn; $27.4) a year would be needed while the EU offered only a fraction of that sum.

US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met leading opposition politicians and was due to have talks with President Viktor Yanukovych.

Ms Nuland met Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxing champion who leads the Udar (Punch) party, as well as Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of Tymoshenko's Fatherland party, and Oleh Tyahnybok, of the far-right Svoboda party.

In Moscow earlier, the US diplomat expressed "deep concern" about events in Ukraine, stressing Washington's support for Ukrainians' "European choice".

She "urged Russia to use its influence to press for peace, human dignity and a political solution", the US embassy in Moscow said in a statement.

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