KIEV: Ukraine’s ruling party demanded Monday a sweeping Cabinet overhaul in a sign that the authorities were feeling the pressure of monthlong protests and seeking to end a crisis sparked by a rejected EU pact.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a historic EU agreement and subsequent police violence against protesters sparked the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Monday’s announcement by Yanukovych’s Regions Party appears to be a move to appease the opposition after the first direct talks between the president and three main opposition leaders failed Friday to defuse Ukraine’s deepest crisis in a decade.
Yanukovych had tried to meet two top opposition demands by promising to amnesty those previously detained at rallies and sacking several senior officials over the police’s use of force.
But the pro-EU opposition has dismissed the moves as half-measures and is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov as well as early presidential and parliamentary polls.
“We have put forward a demand before Azarov to reformat the government by 90 percent,” ruling party lawmaker Anna German said after Monday’s talks with Azarov.
“Azarov said that he would today let the position of the faction be known to the president and conclusions would certainly be made,” she told reporters after the closed-door meeting attended by the entire Cabinet.
German added that Azarov’s own resignation was not discussed.
But opposition leaders appeared implacable a day after gathering nearly 300,000 supporters on Kiev’s iconic Independence Square – the heart of the 2004 pro-democracy revolt.
“We believe that Viktor Yanukovych has made no step toward the resignation of the government and we are awaiting the president’s decision regarding this Cabinet,” said protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The president’s parliamentary representative Yuriy Miroshnychenko said the details and timing of any reshuffle have yet to be hammered out.
“An emotional conversation based on principles was held. We have to take the decisive steps necessary to solve the problems,” he told reporters.
But there were signs that pressure was also growing on Yanukovych from Ukraine’s powerful business leaders whose support is instrumental to any government.
Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov – believed to control a large group of lawmakers in the Regions Party’s parliamentary faction – in a rare statement Friday called for talks and expressed sympathy with the protest movement.
“It depends on the oligarchs and particularly on Akhmetov whether it will be possible to influence Yanukovych so that he removes Azarov,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
Sunday’s monster demonstration was aimed at putting extra pressure on Yanukovych ahead of his crucial talks Tuesday at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yanukovych aims to sign a series of deals with Putin that include an agreement for cheaper Russian natural gas shipments and a multi-billion-dollar loan aimed at righting Ukraine’s wobbly economy.
But demonstrators fear that he will be putting Ukraine on a path toward future membership in a Russian-led Customs Union that Putin hopes to build into a rival to the 28-nation EU bloc.
The government denies that a Customs Union deal will be signed on Tuesday – a promise that has failed to allay the opposition’s suspicions.
Opposition leader Oleg Tyagnibok said his Svoboda (Freedom) Party had learned that Putin planned to reward Yanukovych for delaying the EU deal’s signature with a $5.0-billion loan.
He said Russia will also lower the gas price it charges the Ukrainian state gas company to $200-$300 per thousand cubic meters from more than $400 now.
“That is the baggage Yanukovych is taking with him to Moscow,” Tyagnibok told reporters.
Kremlin adviser Andrei Belousov confirmed that Russia may give Ukraine a much-needed loan but provided no other details.
Yanukovych – whose government last week asked for up to $20 billion from Brussels in return for signing the trade and political association pact – has assured demonstrators that he eventually planned to sign the Association Agreement and sent a delegation to Brussels. But the bloc abruptly suspended the partnership talks Sunday after accusing the Ukrainian leadership of being disingenuous.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels Monday reiterated the bloc’s willingness to strike a deal under the original terms agreed last month.
“If there’s a clear message from Kiev we’re ready to sign tomorrow,” Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.