KIEV, Ukraine — With tense days ahead, President Viktor Yanukovych sat down with opposition leaders Friday afternoon and said he wants to provide amnesty to all those arrested since massive protests broke out three weeks ago over Ukraine’s future direction.
Unmollified, his opponents said they want to see him step down, his prime minister fired and new elections called for president and for parliament.
It wasn’t a negotiation, but a public airing of positions. Also at the table — and also weighing in — were former presidents, church leaders and other cultural figures.
Yanukovych said he wouldn’t dismiss Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and wouldn’t resign. He noted that lawmakers had defeated a vote of no-confidence in him last week. He said the agreement with the European Union that he refused to sign at the last moment — thus precipitating the protest on the Maidan, the Ukrainian word for public square — would have ruined Ukraine’s economy.
Now his government is pursuing a new deal with the European Union, but the opposition has voiced doubt that it ever intends to reach one. Yanukovych is also negotiating with Russia.
Both sides have called for major rallies on Sunday. Yanukovych, who comes from the eastern city of Donetsk, still has strong support among sectors of the country’s Russian-speaking population, and pro-government participants are being recruited in eastern and southern Ukraine. Opposition leaders worry that provocative acts by government agents could lead to an explosion of violence. Yanukovych promised there would be no physical attack on the protesters.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the opposition Fatherland party, said before the meeting that Yanukovych intends to use the excuse of a “bloody Maidan” to assume dictatorial powers. Afterward he said: “No army in the world — no weapon — can destroy our unity. Ukrainians have inspired the whole world. We’re not slaves. We won’t give up.”
“Without a fight there is no victory,” boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko said. “But we are peaceful demonstrators. Avoid provocation. Our main goal is a total reset of the government.”
Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church warned the government against perpetrating violence, which he said would only lead to more violence, perhaps to civil war.
On Tuesday, Yanukovych is scheduled to travel to Moscow to sign trade agreements with Russia, although Azarov declared that none of those agreements would bind Ukraine to the Eurasian Customs Union that Russian President Vladimir Putin is constructing.
“We all know why he’s going there,” Yatsenyuk said. “He wants to sell Ukraine to Russia.”
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also warned Friday of civil war in Ukraine.
“It seems to me that Ukrainian society will have to overcome a tectonic fault that has formed in it,” he said at a Moscow news conference, in remarks relayed by the Interfax news service. “This fault threatens the state’s stability and actually its existence.”