Ukraine’s embattled president offers PM post to opposition

Protesters to be considered ‘extremists’ if they refuse to leave central Kiev


Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has offered top government posts to two liberal opposition leaders in a bid to quell protests that are growing larger and more radical by the day.

He proposed to appoint Arseniy Yatsenyuk as prime minister and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko as deputy premier, and to dismiss the current cabinet if they accepted.

“The president is convinced that joint work together with the opposition will help the state unite and carry out the necessary reforms,” said justice minister Olena Lukash.

Mr Yanukovich also expressed willingness to consider changes to the constitution, which currently gives him huge power, and to free some of those arrested during demonstrations and amend sweeping anti-protest laws.

They are the biggest concessions to be offered to the opposition during two months of protests, but are unlikely to resolve a rapidly escalating crisis.

Over the last week - when as many as five protesters died in clashes with riot police - mainstream party leaders have been shown to have little control over more radical demonstrators who want to oust Mr Yanukovich and overhaul the entire political system.

This group - which is largely disdainful of Ukraine’s whole political elite - is playing an ever greater role in protests on Kiev’s Independence Square, in other cities around Ukraine, and in confrontations with the security forces. They have also gained control of two buildings that house government ministries.

Many protesters say talks are pointless and claim Mr Yanukovich is just playing for time and trying to split the very broad and sometimes fractious opposition movement.

Earlier on Saturday, Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko said peaceful efforts to resolve the crisis had proved “futile”, and told protesters they would be treated as extremists and could be dispersed by security forces if they stayed on the streets of Kiev.

“Talks between police and protest leaders and opposition deputies, which continued through the night, gave no result. They are already unable to influence radical groups which control the occupied buildings and organise acts of violence,” he added.

Mr Zakharchenko also said police believe firearms are being stockpiled in Kiev city hall and a trade union building occupied by protesters next to Independence Square, known locally as Maidan.

“The international community should not close its eyes to these events, which include a high degree of extremist activity,” he added. “Opposition leaders do not disassociate themselves from radical forces, but they are unable to control them, and they are a danger to Ukrainian citizens.”

In a second statement, Mr Zakharchenko - a hawkish figure blamed by protesters for previous, bloody riot police attempts to disperse them - told demonstrators to “leave the radicals....and go to any other safe place.”

“We will consider those who stay on Maidan and in occupied buildings to be extremist groups. And, if danger occurs and the radicals start taking action, we will be obliged to use force.”

Police also threatened to storm city hall if protesters refused to release two officers allegedly held captive inside. Later, the interior ministry said they had been freed.

Activists said the entire story was false, calling it “a deliberate attempt to turn police against protesters” which “could be used as a pretext for a violent dispersal of the Maidan.”

Having occupied the agriculture ministry building close to Maidan yesterday, members of the Spilna Sprava (Common Cause) group this morning entered the nearby energy ministry - a crucial part of the state administration with control over huge revenues, nuclear power stations and pipelines taking Russian oil and gas to the European Union.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, the leader of Spilna Sprava, said his men had been shocked not to meet any resistance when they moved on the ministry. They are allowing essential staff to work normally but have full control over access to the building.

The Irish Times was present as energy minister Eduard Stavitsky held a conference call with atomic facilities, electricity plants and coal mines across Ukraine, and reassured them that the ministry was still functioning.

“I, as minister, am asking you to work calmly and professionally. The safety and wellbeing of all our citizens depends on you,” Mr Stavitsky, a close ally Mr Yanukovich, told managers around the country from a meeting room decked in chandeliers.

“Attacking a building like this is a terrorist act,” Mr Stavitsky told reporters after the call. “These people are terrorists. And terrorists don’t think about the consequences of their actions.”

Mr Danylyuk, a lawyer and anti-corruption campaigner who is now organising an anti-government national guard, said his men entered the ministry to show how chaotically Ukraine is being managed and how key security forces are being used solely to protect Mr Yanukovich.

“We wanted to show that Yanukovich doesn’t really run anything in Ukraine now, except a small area around his residence and office,” Mr Danylyuk told this newspaper.

“Considering what the energy ministry controls, this is a very serious threat for the Ukrainian people and the entire European continent.”

Protests that began in late November, when Mr Yanukovich rejected closer ties with the European Union in favour of a rapprochement with Russia, have become a fight for control of Ukraine between the authorities and protesters who accuse them of massive corruption and growing authoritarianism.

Major clashes between demonstrators and riot police erupted last Sunday, and have since claimed as many as five lives and injured hundreds of people on both sides. One leading activist was this week abducted and killed and others have been beaten up. Police deny responsibility for the deaths.

Mr Yanukovich says he wants to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, but has also vowed to use all powers available to him to crack down on unrest if necessary.

The US and EU blame Mr Yanukovich for the crisis and are urging him to make concessions to the opposition, while Russia accuses the West of destabilising Ukraine.

In recent days, protest actions have escalated dramatically outside, with administrative buildings in western and central cities of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Rivne, Khmelnytsky, Chernivtsi and Poltava now occupied by pro-opposition demonstrators.

The situation is very different in eastern and southern Ukraine, Mr Yanukovich’s stronghold and an industrial heartland that has very close links with Russia. Some local leaders in those areas have urged the president to crack down on protests and, if necessary, to declare a state of emergency.

The protesters’ so-called headquarters of national resistance said today that a state of emergency would mean “the start of the authorities’ war against its own people...the death of thousands of people, a split in the country and the destruction of Ukraine as an independent, sovereign state.”

Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov - the most powerful of several billionaire tycoons who have huge political influence - called for negotiations and compromise.

“There can be only one solution to the political crisis - a peaceful one. Any use of force is unacceptable,” he said.

Neighbouring Poland on Friday urged the international community to do more to help Ukraine.

“The most important thing is to co-operate with both the opposition and Ukrainian authorities in order to prevent the black scenario that is really possible: Ukraine falling apart,” said Polish prime minister Donald Tusk.

“I don’t know whether there are significant powers that are interested in Ukraine falling apart,” Mr Tusk said. “Some activities in Moscow and Kiev could indicate that someone there is pulling strings.”