KIEV: Ukraine’s opposition rejected an offer from president Viktor Yanukovych on Friday to sit down for talks as thousands of protesters reinforced their positions in Kiev.
The talks snub came as demonstrators prepared for another mass rally Sunday to pressure the president to turn away from historical master Moscow toward the EU and Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov called on all parties to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
Experts say time is running out for Yanukovych to make a decision on a future direction for his politically volatile nation, which is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
He can either sign a deal with the European Union that would put his ex-Soviet nation on track to eventually joining the bloc, or join a Moscow-led Customs Union, which Russia sees as a future alternative to the EU.
As protests went into a fourth week, the office of the president, who has called on the opposition to renounce “ultimatums”, said Friday he would personally take part in “round table” talks chaired by post-Soviet Ukraine’s first president Leonid Kravchuk.
The opposition reiterated Friday that it would not participate in any talks until Yanukovych dismissed the government and punished riot police for crushing a small protest late last month.
“This is not so much our position as that of people on Maidan,” a spokeswoman for world boxing champion and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko told Agence France-Presse, referring to Independence Square in Kiev.
The oligarch Akhmetov on Friday urged politicians and the opposition to enter talks.
“We are one country and there is no need to divide it,” he said in a statement released by his SKM holding company.
“Right now, in a difficult moment for our country it’s very important to have cool heads and a balanced approach,” he said.
Renewing talks on EU pact
The embattled 63-year-old president appears to be biding his time, sending a delegation to Brussels on Thursday while at the same time preparing for a new meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A top Ukrainian minister said Kiev was renewing preparations for the EU deal.
“Today we’re renewing preparations for the signing of an agreement,” First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov said after talks with EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Stefan Fuele late Thursday.
Fuele for his part said the EU would help Ukraine implement the association agreement and would help the cash-strapped country obtain an IMF loan.
Putin, for his part, said on Thursday that Ukraine was still welcome to join Moscow’s Customs Union seen as a counterweight to the EU.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will discuss Ukraine with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Monday, the foreign ministry said.
‘People are coming and coming’
Yanukovych is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Tuesday and ahead of the encounter, the opposition has called for another mass rally in Kiev over the weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters crowded into Kiev’s Independence Square last week and on Friday the protesters were busy expanding their encampment beyond Independence Square to fit newcomers.
“We will be pitching new tents. There is no longer enough space on the Maidan,” opposition lawmaker Andriy Parubiy said.
More tents will be put up on Kreshchatyk, Kiev’s main avenue that like the adjacent square was also the epicenter of Ukraine’s pro-democracy Orange Revolution in 2004.
“People are coming and coming, we do not know where to put them up,” Yuri Kirilenko, a 33-year-old protester from the southern city of Kherson, told Agence France-Presse.
In the early hours of Wednesday riot police tried to dislodge the protesters, but the bid failed after the ranks of demonstrators swelled.
They have now fortified their positions by sealing the square with barricades made of sandbags stuffed with snow, reinforced with iron bars and topped with barbed wire and the blue and yellow flags of Ukraine and the EU.
The United States has threatened sanctions after the latest raid, in which several dozen were wounded. AFP