Viktor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, has said that he would propose an amnesty for those detained during recent mass protests against a government decision to reject a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Yanukovich made few concessions in crisis talks he held with the opposition on Friday, his first direct attempt to defuse weeks of unrest over a policy swerve to Russia away from Europe.
He promised an amnesty for those arrested during the protests and said he would consider sacking officials responsible for working on the Association Agreement proposed by the EU – but he made no indication of sacking Mykola Azarov, the Ukrainian prime minister, as demanded by the opposition.
Amnesty for detained protesters has been a key demand of the opposition’s leaders, who say they will not sit down for talks without such a measure in place.
Ukrainian capital of Kiev has been gripped by demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians since late November. They are protesting against Yanukovich’s government after he announced that he would not sign a proposed trade pact with the EU and would instead steer Ukraine closer to Russia.
Opposition wants PM sacked
At the talks, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former economy minister and the opposition leader, was insistent on Azarov’s dismissal and that of the interior minister who is held responsible by the protesters for excessive force by police.
“This government is guilty of a political and economic crisis,” Yatsenyuk said in Azarov’s presence, also adding that the president should punish riot police for beating protesters.
“I am ready to find a path that would give hope to the Ukrainian people that we are capable of overcoming such crises,” President Yanukovich said.
On the sometimes violent protests, he said: “The investigation should say who is guilty. Those responsible should be punished, those caught up by chance amnestied.”
He defended his policy shift towards Russia, repeating that Ukraine’s economic ills could not be cured without “restoration of normal trade relations with Russia.”
The talks came after businessman Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest person, acted as powerbroker and called on all parties to find a peaceful solution to Ukraine’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
Dozens of protesters have been injured and detained at protests as a result of interventions by security forces in and around Kiev’s Independence Square.
On Wednesday, the security forces tore down makeshift barricades but were eventually forced into a retreat amid cheers from the demonstrators after the ranks of protesters swelled.
But the opposition, which had earlier ruled out any negotiations until Yanukovich dismisses the government and punishes riot police for crushing demonstrations on November 30, has vowed to topple the president.
The opposition says that it is planning a mass demonstration for Sunday.