KIEV: Ukraine on Thursday hosted top diplomats for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) overshadowed by two weeks of protests over its rejection of an European Union deal, as demonstrators kept up the pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych.
Thousands of anti-Yanukovych protesters remained on Kiev’s central Independence Square, which they have controlled and surrounded with barricades since a mass protest at the weekend.
The president, whose sudden U-turn not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union sparked the protests, is on a visit to China where he hopes to win a new lifeline for the country’s ailing economy.
Several top foreign ministers, including United States (US) Secretary of State John Kerry, opted not to come to Kiev for the ministerial meeting of the OSCE after the government’s rejection of the deal, which came under heavy Russian pressure.
However, several key players in the Ukraine crisis, including foreign ministers Carl Bildt of Sweden, Radoslav Sikorski of Poland and Germany’s Guido Westerwelle were in Kiev for the meeting.
Also present was Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, raising the prospect of a possible East-West clash.
Westerwelle pointedly visited the protests on Independence Square late on Wednesday and told reporters after meeting opposition leaders that the “gates of Europe” were still open for Ukraine.
“Ukraine has to be on board in Europe and the offers from Europe are still valid,” he said.
Addressing the opening of the OSCE meeting, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the government was “ready for dialogue” with its opponents.
But he lashed out at what he said were “extremist forces” among the protesters and said the way to determine Ukraine’s future was through democratic elections.
Instead of attending the talks in Ukraine, Kerry made a brief but highly symbolic visit to neighboring Moldova, which initialled the Association Agreement last month to set the country on the way to EU integration.