As Ukraine’s street protests marked their third week, U.S. and EU officials arrived here Tuesday to try to break the deadlock with diplomacy.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met with the three main leaders of the opposition. At the same time, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with President Viktor Yanukovych. Later, she visited the protest camp and met with opposition leaders as well.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Ukraine’s president on Monday night and urged a peaceful solution.
Yanukovych Tuesday held nationally televised talks with his three predecessors. He appeared relaxed. He also made two minor gestures to the opposition, saying he favored the release of protesters jailed for what he called minor crimes. He said he was sending a delegation to Brussels for more negotiations with the European Union, and that he hopes to sign a political pact of association with the EU in March.
But the protesters were unmoved. Ukraine negotiated for six years over its EU association agreement that was supposed to have been signed last month.
On Tuesday, the three opposition leaders boycotted roundtable talks with the government.
Markiyan Matsekh, a 22-year-old IT worker from western Ukraine, said the police violence of past weeks showed him that Ukraine risks becoming a dictatorship.
“They went over the line, and this simply cannot happen in a democratic country,” he said, while warming up in a café next to the protest camp in central Kyiv. “I know that if I don’t stand for my rights now, then all my life I will be living in fear that I may be taken away, be judged without justice. So I am standing for my rights, for my future, for the future of my future children,” said Matsekh.
Kyiv vs. Yanukovych
A new poll by Research & Branding Group indicates that western Ukraine overwhelmingly supports the EU pact - with 81 percent in favor. Overall, 46 percent of Ukrainians favor the EU pact, and 36 percent favor joining a rival pact with Russia.
Support for Yanukovych seems lukewarm in Kyiv, a city where 75 percent of votes cast in the 2010 presidential election went for Yanukovych’s opponent. And the police violence of recent weeks pushed a lot of people here to demonstrate.
On Tuesday afternoon, John, an American businessman, was dragging a small suitcase of food down a cobblestone street from his apartment to the demonstrators’ camp on the city’s central square.
He contrasted the current mass protest with the Orange Revolution of 2004: “It’s brought together not only opposition factions, but people feel that they have been betrayed by the last-minute about-turn on the EU, and especially a much broader segment of the population, who are offended by the brutality of the authorities,” said he.
For now, police have hemmed demonstrators in their tent camp in central Kyiv. With nighttime temperatures expected to drop to -16 Celsius and snow forecast for Wednesday, Ukraine’s president seems to be hoping that his best ally is Father Winter.