Ukraine opposition calls for talks, bruised Kiev picks up pieces

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 20, 2014 10:50 AM

By Richard Balmforth

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich named a top aide to organize peace talks with the opposition after violent clashes between police and protesters in Kiev, but the opposition warned him on Monday not to play for time.

Yanukovich, facing unrest which seriously threatens his re-election chances in 2015, agreed to open a dialogue with the opposition after scores were injured in Sunday's clashes, the worst in two months of protests over his policy U-turn away from Europe towards Russia.

With tension still high, about 1,000 protesters confronted police on Monday near Kiev's main government headquarters and hurled projectiles. Ukraine's general prosecutor called on opposition leaders to order them to desist.

Streets nearby were littered with bricks and debris, including burned-out buses and trucks from Sunday's mayhem in which protesters bombarded police with fireworks, flares and later petrol bombs. Police replied with rubber bullets, stun grenades and water cannon.

Yanukovich's apparent concession came after the violence and a rally attended by more than 100,000 people in Kiev.

The rally - held in defiance of a court ban - was called to denounce his rejection of a European future for Ukraine and the introduction of sweeping new laws which the opposition says will usher in a police state.

Despite opposition calls for only peaceful action, the rally descended into violence when masked youths detached themselves from the main protest site on Independence Square and tried to march on parliament before being stopped by police.

In the ensuing clashes, more than 60 police were injured, with 40 being taken to hospital, police said. Kiev's medical services said about 100 civilians had sought medical attention.

Seeking to keep the advantage established on the streets, the opposition on Monday warned Yanukovich that he should not try to buy time in the hope protesters would lose heart.

"It's important that these talks have a real result," said boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, who met Yanukovich late on Sunday at his country residence as pitch battles went on between protesters and police in the capital.

"If the authorities again break their word, the situation will inevitably escalate," he said, adding that the president must be part of any dialogue.

Klitschko, seen as a potentially strong contender for the presidency, later urged people outside Kiev to come to the capital to swell the ranks of protesters.


The protests convulsing the ex-Soviet republic stem from Yanukovich's decision to ditch a free trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine's former Soviet overlord.

He has been rewarded by a $15 billion aid package from Moscow including credits and much cheaper gas.

But the trigger for Sunday's large rally was the passage of new laws rammed through parliament by Yanukovich loyalists which outlaw virtually all anti-government protest and, the opposition says, pave the way for a dictatorship.

The laws ban unauthorized installation of tents, stages or use of loudspeakers in public and allow heavy jail sentences for participation in "mass disorder". They outlaw dissemination of "extremist" or libelous information about Ukraine's leaders.

In Washington, the White House expressed "deep concern" that criminalizing peaceful protests would weaken Ukraine's democratic foundation. It threatened sanctions against Kiev.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said in Brussels: "It is the most solid package of repressive laws that I have seen enacted by a European parliament for decades."

It was not clear if Yanukovich would agree to take part personally in peace talks with the opposition. But up to now, he has refused to yield to any of the opposition's core demands to sack his government and the interior minister over heavy-handed police action against demonstrators in December.

His Party of the Regions, however, blamed Sunday's violence on the opposition, saying they had fuelled it by their slogans and calls for strike action and national resistance.

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk in Kiev and Adrian croft in Brussels; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mike Collett-White)