KIEV, Ukraine — Government officials, dignitaries and representatives from restive eastern Ukraine held a second round of talks on national unity Saturday, even as tensions remained high in the troubled Donetsk and Luhansk regions near the country’s border with Russia.
The latest discussions took place in the eastern city of Kharkiv, following an inaugural session in Kiev on Wednesday that produced little sign of a breakthrough. Western diplomats, however, have hailed the process for putting the interim government and some of its domestic critics in one room.
The parties agreed to pass on to parliament a 12-point “Memorandum of Understanding to restore order in our country” that could include a pledge to change the constitution to extend more power to Ukraine’s regions, grant a limited amnesty to separatists, condemn the unlawful use of weapons and secure the status of the Russian language. Mikhail Dobkin, a former governor of Kharkiv and a longtime ally of fallen president Viktor Yanukovych, said that if such a bill passes, the next step should be the Ukrainian military’s withdrawal from the east and a move by separatists to lay down their arms.
Such a deal still appeared far off. But Dobkin said that successful passage of a good faith measure in parliament would send the right message.
“No trust, no solutions,” he said.
On Saturday, participants again took turns venting, expressing divergent views in front of rolling cameras. Easterners complained of Kiev’s high-handed treatment of their region, while officials of the interim government extended an olive branch, promising to address demands for decentralizing power by ceding more authority to Ukraine’s regional capitals.
The transfer of some power is a key demand, particularly in the heavily ethnic Russian east. But just how to carry it out, as well as how much power to cede, remains hotly in debate.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said at the talks that “power must be decentralized,” but he warned against moving toward full federalization, as many in the east advocate. That, he and others argued, would only strengthen the fiefdoms of power across Ukraine, where governors have often used their positions to create bastions of corruption.
Under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Vienna-based body that includes European powers as well as the United States and Russia, the talks are being strongly supported by the West as a way to start a national dialogue on the future of Ukraine following the political upheaval of recent months.
The talks are also aimed at de-escalating tensions in the east, where pro-Russian separatists have seized government buildings and clashed with the Ukrainian military. The separatists are not taking part in the talks, however, and it remained unclear to what extent representatives from the east could influence the separatists to lay down their arms.
The roundtable talks took place as the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian group in the east that has seized official buildings in the region, reiterated a call to emulate Crimea and be absorbed into the Russian Federation — a call that thus far has sparked no action from Moscow.
In Washington on Saturday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described such actions as illegal. “Any decisions made about Ukraine must be taken by those with lawful authority, representing the citizens of Ukraine as a whole, and not under threat of foreign military intervention,” she said.
In a thinly veiled threat against Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, who began dispatching his factory workers to the streets this week to restore the peace in a handful of eastern cities, the Donetsk separatists’ leadership also threatened to seize the assets of oligarchs.
“We are not against private property, and we have no intention of depriving anyone of their private property. However, there are some political circumstances — some oligarchs who are trying to play their own game here and are political figures and are collaborating with the enemy — and so [expropriation] is an open issue,” Alexander Borodai, the self-described prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters Saturday, according to the Interfax news service.
Borodai also ruled out talks with Kiev representatives until all Ukrainian “occupation” forces were withdrawn, a reference to this nation’s military, now engaged in a counter-offensive in the east. “When the foot of the last armed man leaves our territory, we will possibly receive some mediators,” Borodai said.
Also Saturday, separatist forces in the east said that three people, including two girls, had been killed in a clash at a roadblock outside Slovyansk, Interfax reported. The news service, citing unnamed sources, said two pro-Ukrainian militants in a silver Volvo attempted to evade the checkpoint at a high speed and struck the girls. Pro-Russian gunmen opened fire, killing one of the pro-Ukrainian occupants of the vehicle.
There were also skirmishes in the Hayovy section of Luhansk and other districts, according to the news service.
Pro-Russian rebels, meanwhile, freed a leader of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic from a unit of Ukrainian border guards who were holding him, Interfax reported Saturday.
Valery Bolotov, the “people’s governor” of the insurgent Luhansk, had been detained at the Dovzhansky checkpoint about 5:45 a.m., the news service said, citing unidentified sources in the Ukrainian State Border Service.
Interfax said the border guards asked for assistance from Ukraine’s security forces and unspecified law enforcement agencies, but their call went unheeded. About two hours later, a band of 100 armed men showed up and released Bolotov after “a fierce fight,” the news service said, without giving further specifics about the clash. The news service did not report any casualties.
Kunkle reported from Donetsk.