KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 26 -- After a day of emergency talks with European envoys and each other, the two main candidates in Ukraine's contested presidential election agreed Friday that their camps would begin immediate formal negotiations toward resolving the political crisis that has engulfed the expansive former Soviet republic.
The talks are set to start Saturday with an open agenda, according to a Western diplomat who took part in Friday's discussions. Those meetings ended with a three-hour roundtable that included the two candidates -- Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko -- as well as Ukrainian government leaders and visiting Europeans.
President Leonid Kuchma, center, speaks after talks between opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, left, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
(Ivan Sekretarev -- AP)
As the talks proceeded, large crowds of Yushchenko supporters, who contend that victory was stolen from their candidate through fraud, stepped up their pressure. Bundled against the cold, protesters massed at key government buildings in the capital and linked arms to block access.
At day's end, with the agreement to negotiate in hand, Yushchenko agreed to lift the blockades and allow the government to work, according to accounts of the closed-door talks. But his campaign plans to continue rallies that have been underway this week in the capital's Independence Square and elsewhere in the city.
Just as quickly as they agreed to try to find a settlement, the two campaigns split about what was on the table for discussion. "We will only hold talks on staging a new vote," Yushchenko declared after the talks to supporters in Independence Square. "If there is no decision within one or two days, it means Yanukovych cannot hear you."
Yanukovych did not immediately respond, but one adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the speech was evidence of Yushchenko's bad faith after a day of hard bargaining.
The crisis has strained relations between Russia, which has long treated neighboring Ukraine as a natural zone of influence, and the United States. While U.S. leaders, including President Bush on Friday, and the European Union have supported opposition claims of widespread electoral fraud, Russian officials have put their weight behind the pro-Russian Yanukovych.
Referring to Western officials' criticism of the election, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in Moscow that "their next thesis is that Ukraine must be with the West."
"The Ukrainian people must decide who Ukraine wants to be with, and such statements make you think that somebody really wants to draw new dividing lines in Europe," Lavrov said.
Friday's talks brought the candidates together with envoys from the European Union and Russia, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the head of the Ukrainian parliament. Also taking part were Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus.
In a meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Yanukovych agreed to take no steps to assume power until the country's Supreme Court ruled on complaints from Yushchenko that the election was fraudulent, Solana told reporters afterward.
In a preliminary ruling Thursday, the court blocked Yanukovych's inauguration before it begins hearing arguments Monday. Those proceedings will continue in parallel with the talks, according to Western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as is customary in the diplomatic world.
Both sides also agreed to refrain from using violence, according to Solana.
"Only talks can resolve the difficult situation that was created after the election," Kuchma's spokeswoman, Olena Gromitska, quoted the Ukrainian president as saying at the start of negotiations. "It can be resolved through compromise."