In Ukraine, no breakthrough in talks to end crisis, but a glimmer of one

January 23

After a day of sometimes violent protests in cities across Ukraine, political adversaries trying to negotiate an end to the crisis here hammered out a few early compromises Thursday night before breaking off talks until later.

The leaders of the three main opposition parties spent three hours with President Viktor Yanukovych and left the presidential offices looking less than thrilled with what they had wrought. They were met with jeers and shouts of dismay when they tried to make their case to the protesters who have been at the center of fierce clashes with police on Hrushevsky Street, near the capital’s Dynamo Stadium.

Yet for the first time since the protests began Nov. 21, a glimpse of a possible solution was visible. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the Fatherland party, said there is a “high chance” that further bloodshed can be avoided. But that would depend on the good faith of Yanukovych and his government — something the opposition has been loath to count on.

The immediate trade-off would be an end to the clashes in return for the release of all those detained during the protests. As Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, was outlining this tentative agreement to the young men on Hrushevsky Street, angry protesters reignited the piles of tires that had burned there all day Wednesday.

Vitali Klitschko, head of the UDAR opposition party, said the negotiations would resume but did not say when.

Yanukovych seemed to spend most of the day trying to buy himself time. He ordered parliament to come back from recess on Tuesday to reconsider the harsh laws restricting speech and protests that it passed last week and to take up a no-confidence vote in the government.

He hinted that the new laws would be watered down or even repealed, but he didn’t say so. With his Party of Regions holding a majority in parliament, it is highly unlikely that a no-confidence motion would pass.

Yanukovych sharply criticized the unpopular prime minister, Mykola Azarov, who had said that those killed during this week’s clashes deserved it. Azarov spent Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, where he walked those remarks back. It was not clear whether Yanukovych is prepared to lose his prime minister in a no-confidence vote or merely wants to give the impression, for the time being, that that could happen.

He took a call Thursday evening from Vice President Biden, who warned him against allowing any further violence.

“The Vice President underscored that freedoms of assembly and expression are fundamental pillars of a democratic society and must be protected,” according to a White House statement. “While emphasizing that violence by any side is not acceptable, the Vice President underscored that only the government of Ukraine can ensure a peaceful end to the crisis and further bloodshed would have consequences for Ukraine’s relationship with the United States.”

At least three activists were killed this week and hundreds wounded. Ukrainians were scandalized by a video that appears to show riot police taunting a man standing in the snow whom they had stripped naked. The much-resented Interior Ministry apologized for the officers’ behavior.

Protests erupted Thursday in Cherkasy, Zhytomyr, Rivne and Ternopil. There was even a small one in Donetsk, Yanukovych’s home town. In Lviv, a mob forced the governor to sign a letter of resignation, although he later appealed to prosecutors to annul it.

Klitschko, appearing before a large crowd on Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, shortly after midnight, spoke slowly and quietly. He said Yanukovych had tried to bully them during the evening discussions. “But we will not give up,” he said.

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