KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich said he would meet with his three predecessors Tuesday in an effort to resolve a political crisis that escalated with the storming of an opposition party headquarters by armed riot police.
Yanukovich announced plans Monday for what he said would be a nationally televised round-table discussion with the other three men who have served as president of Ukraine since it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Yanukovich was also expected to meet with European Union envoy Catherine Ashton, who is expected to talk to both sides in Kiev on Tuesday.
The capital, Kiev, has been rocked by massive demonstrations in recent weeks after Yanukovich's decision to reject a proposed trade pact with the EU. By default, that leaves Russia as Ukraine's leading economic ally, angering Yanukovich's Western-leaning opponents.
The demonstrations continued peacefully Monday, although there were moments of tension.
Late Monday, riot police armed with Kalashnikov rifles stormed the central Kiev headquarters of the Batkivshchyna party, led by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko, who is in prison for abuse of power, has been urging her followers to seek the ouster of Yanukovich.
“They are breaking doors, furniture, seizing computers and other things," Tymoshenko's press secretary, Marina Soroka, said in a telephone interview during the raid. "They have also detained some of our employees who were there during the attack and offered no resistance.”
She later said that the police had spent about an hour and a half in the party's offices, making no arrests but ransacking the premises and taking away computer servers and other equipment that belong to the party and three affiliated media organizations.
It was not clear whether the raid was directly related to the political confrontation. Ukraine's Interior Ministry said police were searching the Batkivshchyna offices as part of an investigation into a fraud and abuse-of-office case. The ministry confirmed that police had seized computers and documents, and made no arrests.
“The way I see it, [this action] is attached to Yanukovich's round-table discussion proposal,” opposition leader and Tymoshenko deputy Arseny Yatsenyuk said at a briefing Monday night. “If President Yanukovich thinks that he can resolve the political and economic crisis in the country with the help of interior troops and ... riot police, he is making a mistake.”
The round-table discussion is expected to include former Ukrainian Presidents Viktor Yushchenko, Leonid Kuchma and Leonid Kravchuk.
“Such round-table discussion may become a scene for building understanding," said a statement posted on Yanukovich's presidential website.Volodimir Fesenko, head of the Center for Applied Political Research, a Kiev-based think tank, said it was possible that the meeting could lead to compromise talks between Yanukovich and the opposition. In the meantime, he sees the president attempting to get tougher with the protesters.
“Yanukovich is still trying to maneuver and still hesitating carrying out a full-scale operation to win Kiev back from the opposition,” Fesenko said in an interview. “But the way they are dismantling the barricades in the city and storming the headquarters of Batkivshchyna [party] demonstrates that Yanukovich has already started to carry out a crawling operation with use of force to test the grounds to see whether that may scare the protesters.”
He warned that any provocations by the authorities could aggravate a potentially dangerous situation. "Things that have already reached the boiling point may completely get out of control,” Fesenko said.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.