Western envoys bid to defuse Ukraine crisis
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland meets top opposition leaders, slated to meet President Viktor Yanukovych
Top Western diplomats headed to Kiev on Tuesday to try to defuse a standoff between President Viktor Yanukovych’s government and thousands of demonstrators, following a night in which police in riot gear dismantled protesters’ encampments outside government buildings.
But a compromise appeared elusive, as dozens of pro-government activists blocked the entrance to the European Commission office in Kiev just hours before the arrival of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Riot police maintained a strong presence in downtown Kiev, which demonstrators have occupied for weeks to protest against Yanukovych’s decision to back away from an agreement with the European Union and tilt toward Russia instead.
But the atmosphere in the opposition tent camp, in a central square known as the Maidan, appeared calm. Music blasted from a giant stage, activists lined up to receive food from field kitchens and black-robed Orthodox priests talked to activists to boost morale, careful not to slip on a thick crust of ice and snow that blanketed the Ukrainian capital.
“We are standing on the Maidan so that Yanukovych will be afraid and know that there is another Ukraine, a European one, which doesn’t want to go to Russia,” said protester Anton Ostriysko, 35, who was warming himself at a fire after a night shift at the camp.
US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with top opposition leaders on Tuesday and was also slated to meet with Yanukovych. Ashton was due to arrive later in the day.
Yanukovych also sat down with his three predecessors as part of so-called “nationwide roundtable” discussions aimed at defusing the crisis.
The opposition Svoboda party said some 10 protesters were injured in one of the confrontations overnight, in which police tore down small tent camps blocking access to government buildings. Authorities said two policemen were injured, adding they had received no other complaints.
But the incidents appeared to be less violent than the club-swinging police dispersals of demonstrators a week and a half ago. That violence outraged many and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the streets the past two Sundays, turnouts perhaps larger even than the mass protests of the 2004 Orange Revolution that forced a rerun of a fraudulent presidential election.
On Sunday protesters also toppled a landmark statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in a symbolic defiance of Russian influence.
Tensions grew on Monday when armed security troops stormed the office of a key opposition party, confiscating computer servers and leaving broken glass and smashed doors behind them. The party, called Fatherland, is headed by imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a longstanding foe of Yanukovych.
Ukraine’s political standoff has been aggravated by its rapidly deteriorating finances. The economy has been in recession for more than a year, and the government is in desperate need of foreign funding to avoid a default. As talks stalled with the International Monetary Fund, Yanukovych has sought a bailout loan from Russia.