KIEV, Ukraine — After more than three weeks of street protests against his rule, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich on Friday met with opposition leaders, who came away declaring that little had been achieved.
“Talking to these high-placed bureaucrats felt like traveling back to the U.S.S.R.,” opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Friday night. “None of our demands were met. But the good thing is we personally delivered them to Yanukovich and looked into his eye.”
The meeting at Ukraina Palace in downtown Kiev included Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s top clergy, former presidents and others. The discussions were led by former President Leonid Kravchuk.
Three opposition leaders — Klitschko, Arseny Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyagnybok — bluntly spelled out their demands: the resignation of Azarov’s government, the punishment of those responsible for police sweeps that injured and detained many protesters, and the release of all those being held.
Yanukovich and his government have faced mounting protests since he turned his back on a potential deal with the European Union that would have tied his nation more closely to the West, instead favoring continued ties with traditional ally Russia.
The opposition leaders said the president told them it was up to parliament whether to sack the nation’s Cabinet of Ministers, a proposal lawmakers turned down two weeks ago. Yanukovich also avoided responding to Klitschko's proposal for early presidential and parliament elections to help resolve the political crisis.
“His position that he couldn't sack the government or call the early elections is a lie,” Klitschko said in an interview with The Times. “We had such a precedent in Ukraine's recent history when [in 1994] President Kravchuk called early presidential and parliament elections.”
Yanukovich also offered amnesty for the detained protesters in exchange for the opposition dropping its demand to punish those responsible for the use of force against demonstrators who have occupied areas of downtown Kiev, the capital, in recent weeks.
“Yanukovich threatened to punish everybody to show who is the boss and then he offered us this compromise,” Tyagnybok told thousands of Ukrainians rallying on a cold Friday night in Kiev’s Independence Square. “Can we accept this kind of compromise?”
“No,” the crowd shouted.
Tyagnybok alleged that while it was offering amnesty, the government had gathered about 12,000 riot and interior troops in Kiev, pulling security details that guard nuclear power plants near the cities of Rivne and Khmelnytsky.
“We told him [Yanukovich] that we know about all his plans to introduce a state of emergency and use the army,” said Yatsenyuk. “We are not scum and we are not slaves and we won't allow him to put us down on our knees!”
Yatsenyuk told the crowd in Independence Square that Yanukovich was going to Moscow on Tuesday. “We know that he is going to sell Ukraine to Russia,” he said. “But we won't give him a single chance to return our Ukraine to the Soviet Union!”
The opposition leaders called for continued protests in Independence Square over the weekend and into next week.
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions is calling a pro-government rally Saturday in nearby Europe Square. Miners, industrial and municipal workers, budget employees and students are reportedly being brought to Kiev for the gathering from eastern Ukraine, where pro-government and pro-Russia sentiment is stronger than in the west.
Klitschko called on the crowd in Independence Square to show restraint Saturday and not to yield to possible provocation. “Who will be excessively aggressive will be dealing personally with me,” the champion heavyweight boxer told the crowd, which responded with a roar of approval.
Yanukovich will resort to force, no matter what he promises, if he is at risk of losing his job, said Vitaly Portnikov, a Ukrainian political analyst and television journalist.
“Yanukovich has a right to call a state of emergency for 48 hours and he can resort to it under pressure,” Portnikov said. “He doesn't want to lose power, but now he can only keep it at the cost of splitting Ukraine into two.”
Klitschko said that the opposition would move to the next stage of its plan, though he refused to offer details.
“The key element of our plan is [keeping] the people in the square,” he said, “and the more people we see there the more effective our plan can be.”