KIEV : EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych on Wednesday in a fresh effort to resolve a two-month crisis as lawmakers battled over a deal to curb the president’s powers.
Buoyed by support from Western dignitaries including the EU’s Ashton, the opposition has accused Yanukovych of dragging his feet over proposals to end the worst standoff in Ukraine’s history since the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The political crisis continues,” boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko said in parliament as it debated an opposition demand for a curb on presidential powers. “People in the streets are waiting for a solution. If we don’t agree on it, there will be a new wave of escalating tensions,” he said.
The protest leaders want the president to reform the constitution to take away some of his powers in an effort to defuse a crisis that has pitted Ukraine’s former master Russia against the West.
“I hope that already today we will be able to agree on a blueprint according to which we will be changing the constitution,” the president’s representative in parliament, Yuriy Myroshnychenko, told reporters.
The embattled 63-year-old leader was expected to arrive in Sochi on Friday to discuss the crisis with Putin on the sidelines of the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games.
Ukraine’s economy is in tatters and the government is waiting for Russia to release in full the $15 billion (11 billion euros) Putin has promised Kiev in a critical bailout that has now been put on hold pending the instalment of a new government.
The opposition for its part has called for financial aid from the West, and Ashton has raised the possibility of Western financing in exchange for democratic reforms.
“During her visit she will discuss the efforts in support of a political resolution to the crisis and how the EU can assist these efforts,” said spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic, confirming that a meeting with Yanukovych had begun.
Both Brussels and Washington have threatened sanctions against Ukrainian officials amid warning the country was on the brink of “civil war.”
In a concession to protesters camped out on Kiev’s barricaded Independence Square, Myroshnychenko said Yanukovych was also considering an early election before the scheduled end of his mandate in 2015.
Oleksandr Yefremov, the head of Yanukovych’s Regions Party in parliament, also said the president next week could unveil his nomination for prime minister after the previous cabinet resigned last month under opposition pressure.
But the opposition accuses the Ukrainian leader of seeking to win time rather than put an end to a turmoil that left several people dead and turned parts of the capital Kiev into a battle zone.
Ashton dined with opposition leaders on Tuesday and was set to meet them again Wednesday, along with representatives of anti-Yanukovych civil society movements and non-governmental groups.
“The European Union’s high representative Lady Ashton assured us that Europe is ready to delegate high-level mediators for negotiations with the authorities,” Klitschko said.
Ukraine’s protests erupted in November after Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow, and the turmoil has now become an all-out movement to oust him.
The president has already scrapped controversial anti-protest laws and dismissed the government but protesters on the streets are demanding a wholesale “reset” of power.
Under Ukraine’s constitution, the president now has less than 60 days to name a new cabinet.
In a phone call Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden urged Yanukovych to pursue dialogue and compromise as he called for the “immediate” pulling back of riot police.
The opposition says that while there are now no open clashes with the police, activists are being beaten by pro-government militias as part of a “secret repression”.
Lithuania on Tuesday confirmed signs of torture on Dmytro Bulatov, a Ukrainian activist it is treating, and urged an independent investigation.
Bulatov, who claims he was kidnapped and “crucified” by unknown assailants, is a criminal suspect in Ukraine and was only allowed to leave on Sunday following intense diplomatic lobbying.