Kiev braced for a weekend of fresh mass rallies after Ukraine’s opposition said Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to meet their demands during talks aimed at defusing the country’s worst political crisis in a decade.
Despite freezing conditions, protesters have barricaded themselves in Kiev’s Independence Square, where they have camped out for three weeks of protests sparked by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an integration deal with the EU.
Under intense pressure, the Ukrainian leader is running out of time to decide whether to turn his politically volatile nation toward the West by signing a deal with the EU, or join a Moscow-led Customs Union. As the embattled 63-year-old president hedges his bets, the opposition has called for another monster rally after hundreds of thousands swelled the central square last weekend.
The scene is set for a potentially explosive scene, as backers of the ruling Regions Party are to be bussed in for a separate rally supporting Yanukovych.
The US Department of State warned Washington would be watching the rallies closely, urging Ukrainian authorities to steer clear of strong-arm tactics just days after riot police stormed protesters’ barricades in a failed bid to reclaim Independence Square.
Protesters have now reinforced their positions and sealed the square with barricades topped with barbed wire and the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine and the EU.
“It is absolutely imperative that this weekend’s protests be allowed to proceed peacefully,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said in expressing disappointment at the “unproductive” talks.
“We are disappointed that discussions that began today between the president and the opposition were apparently unproductive,” Harf said.
Friday’s talks were attended by the three main protest leaders — world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, nationalist leader Oleg Tyagnybok and the head of the party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
In a tense encounter, Yanukovych promised amnesty for those arrested during the protests and a “moratorium” on actions by the security forces.
“I address all citizens with a request to calm down and halt confrontation,” Yanukovych said.
However, the opposition, which has insisted that the government of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov should resign and riot police punished for beating protesters, said Yanukovych’s promises were nowhere near enough.
“We heard nothing in response to our demands. We want to see clear steps out of crisis, not to hear calls,” Klitschko said.
He warned the president against sending riot police to break up today’s protest.
“It will have terrible consequences for the country and for you personally,” Klitschko said.
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency said that Ukrainian officials had assured him officials would try to keep the peace.
“I was also told there are no plans for police to use force against demonstrators,” Linkevicius said.
The talks at a concert hall were chaired by post-Soviet Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, and were also attended by top church leaders, parliament speaker, foreign minister and other top figures.
The negotiations came after Ukraine’s richest man and hugely influential powerbroker Rinat Akhmetov called on all parties to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s deepest political crisis in a decade.