Ukraine PM warns opposition to halt protests
KIEV - Agence France-Presse
Protests shout slogans as they block the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers in Kiev on December 4, 2013. AFP PhotoUkraine's prime minister Wednesday warned the opposition to end mass protests over a rejected deal with the EU, saying the reasons for demonstrating were now exhausted and protestors could be held criminally responsible.
With Ukraine in need of cash to shore up its finances as thousands of demonstrators kept up a permanent presence in the heart of the capital Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych pressed on with a three-day visit to China which could net significant financial deals.
A senior Ukrainian delegation also held talks with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, which has watched the protests with a wary eye but could also ease financial pressure on its cash-strapped neighbour.
With pro-EU demonstrators blockading the seat of government, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the fact he had survived a vote of no confidence the day earlier showed it was time for the country's biggest protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution to wind down.
"I am announcing a call to stop an escalation of political tensions," Azarov said at the first government meeting since the crisis began more than a week ago.
"The reasons for streets protests have been exhausted," he said.
"I would like to tell people: your leaders are putting you up to a crime," he said. "They will try to hide behind lawmaker immunity. But you will have no one to hide behind." He said the authorities were keeping the situation under control as about 1,500 protesters picketed the government headquarters, holding a banner declaring "Ukraine is Europe." The demonstrations erupted in Ukraine after the government refused to sign a key political and trade agreement with the EU under pressure from Russia. The protesters' fury was amplified by a police crackdown on a rally on Saturday which saw several hundred take refuge in a monastery. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Kiev and western Ukraine in protests that degenerated into unprecedented clashes with police.
After the violence subsided, the opposition set up a tent city on Kiev's iconic Independence Square where food and clothing is readily available, pop music blares out round the clock and black-robed priests lead protesters into prayer.
The protestors have effectively seized control of the square, erecting barricades at its main entrances scrawled with anti-Yanukovych graffiti and no member of the security forces in sight.
Seeking to maintain a careful balance between Russia and the EU, the Ukrainian government said it wanted talks with both Brussels and Moscow.
Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, whose government wants Ukraine to join a Russian-led customs union, on Wednesday received a Ukrainian delegation led by first prime minister Yury Boiko.
"We are carefully watching what is happening in your country," Medvedev told the Ukrainians. After rejecting the opportunity to sign the EU pact citing pressure from the Kremlin, Yanukovych called instead for trilateral talks with both Moscow and Brussels, a proposal the EU has rejected.
Ukrainian officials were also in talks on Wednesday to send another delegation to Brussels but EU officials appeared to be in no hurry to commit to a firm date.
"We're now in talks with the European Commission on when that can be," foreign minister Leonid Kozhara told reporters, suggesting the visit may take place later this month.
The delegation to Brussels will be led by first deputy prime minister Sergiy Arbuzov who earlier Wednesday met with the head of the EU delegation to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski.
A European Union source said Brussels was ready to renew talks on the pact although discussions on the text of the document would have to start from scratch. The embattled president arrived on a visit to China which is due to last until December 6, holding talks in Xian with regional officials before moving on for an expected visit to Beijing.
Opposition leaders including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who declared his bid to run for the presidency in 2015, say the government betrayed the people by balking after years of negotiations.
They have vowed to keep up the protests until their demands for the resignation of the government and early presidential and parliamentary elections are met.
The government survived an opposition no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday with the motion mustering just 186 of the 226 votes required to pass.