Rivals in Ukraine presidential crisis agree to negotiate
By Peter Finn
The Washington Post
KIEV, Ukraine – After a day of emergency talks with European envoys and each other, the two main candidates in Ukraine’s contested presidential election agreed Friday that their camps would begin immediate formal negotiations toward resolving the political crisis that has engulfed the former Soviet republic.
The talks are set to start Saturday with an open agenda, according to a Western diplomat who took part in Friday’s discussions. Those meetings ended with a three-hour roundtable that included the two candidates – Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko – as well as Ukrainian government leaders and visiting Europeans.
As the talks proceeded, large crowds of Yushchenko supporters, who contend that victory was stolen from their candidate through fraud, stepped up their pressure. Bundled against the cold, protesters massed at key government buildings in the capital and linked arms to block access.
At day’s end, with the agreement to negotiate in hand, Yushchenko agreed to lift the blockades and allow the government to work, according to accounts of the closed-door talks. But his campaign plans to continue rallies that have been underway this week in the capital’s Independence Square and elsewhere in the city.
Just as quickly as they agreed to try to find a settlement, the two campaigns split about what was on the table for discussion. “We will only hold talks on staging a new vote,” Yushchenko declared after the talks to supporters in Independence Square. “If there is no decision within one or two days, it means Yanukovych cannot hear you.”
Yanukovych did not immediately respond, but one adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the speech was evidence of Yushchenko’s bad faith after a day of hard bargaining.
The crisis has strained relations between Russia, which has long treated neighboring Ukraine as a natural zone of influence, and the United States. While U.S. leaders, including President Bush on Friday, and the European Union have supported opposition claims of widespread electoral fraud, Russian officials have put their weight behind the pro-Russian Yanukovych.
Referring to Western officials’ criticism of the election, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in Moscow on Friday that “their next thesis is that Ukraine must be with the West.”
“The Ukrainian people must decide who Ukraine wants to be with, and such statements make you think that somebody really wants to draw new dividing lines in Europe,” Lavrov said.
Friday’s talks brought the candidates together with envoys from the European Union and Russia, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and the head of the Ukrainian parliament. Also taking part were Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus.
In a meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Yanukovych agreed to take no steps to assume power until the country’s Supreme Court ruled on complaints from Yushchenko that the election was fraudulent, Solana told reporters afterward.
In a preliminary ruling Thursday, the court blocked Yanukovych’s inauguration before it begins hearing arguments Monday. Those proceedings will continue in parallel with the talks, according to Western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as is customary in the diplomatic world.
Both sides also agreed to refrain from using violence, according to Solana.
“Only talks can resolve the difficult situation that was created after the election,” Kuchma’s spokeswoman, Olena Gromitska, quoted the Ukrainian president as saying at the start of negotiations. “It can be resolved through compromise.”
Solana said the atmosphere between the candidates was “cold” when they began direct discussions in the presence of European diplomats in the evening. But after an hour, Solana said, the discussion became more cordial.
The planned negotiations take a little edge out of a standoff that so far has been generally peaceful. But the possibility of violence remained Friday. Thousands of Yanukovych supporters have also poured into the capital and are now gathered around the city’s main train station, about a mile from the throng supporting Yushchenko.
The two candidates are split along geographic as well as ideological lines. Yushchenko draws support in the capital and western parts of the country, where the Ukrainian language is common. Yanukovych is backed by large segments of the population in the east, where Russian is widely spoken.
The potential for a formal split along regional lines was dramatized Friday when local deputies from eastern Ukraine warned that they would call a referendum on autonomy for their region if Yushchenko was installed as president, according to news reports in Ukraine.
“If they don’t clear people out of Kiev squares on Saturday and Sunday, we should, in an orderly, constitutional way, stage a referendum of trust to determine this country’s makeup,” said Alexander Lukyanchenko, the mayor of Donetsk, where Yanukovych was previously governor. “We can live without that half, but can they live without us?”
The threat came as Yushchenko appeared to be drawing support from some members of key organs of government in the capital – the security services, the prosecutor’s office, state television journalists and government workers.
In a symbolic but potent example of that shift, cadets from the country’s Interior Ministry academy marched in uniform Friday morning to a spot where riot police were protecting the offices of the president. The cadets called on the riot police to cross over and join them. None did.
European diplomats said the tension has no easy solution. The candidates, who both declare they have won the presidency, have committed constituencies behind them that seem unwilling to accept anything but victory for their man.
“The situation is more than difficult,” Polish President Kwasniewski told reporters Friday.
Each side continues to vilify the other. Speaking to supporters Friday afternoon, Yanukovych said he was off to negotiate with “that scheming cat.” The Yushchenko camp almost daily calls Yanukovych a criminal.