Ukraine’s prime minister has told leaders in the country’s restive east that he is committed to allowing regions to have more powers, after a 48-hour ultimatum given to pro-Russian separatists passed without progress in a crisis that threatens the country’s unity.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who met in Donetsk on Friday with officials from the same city, did not clarify how his ideas overlap with demands of protesters now occupying government buildings, or Russia’s advocacy of federalisation.
“There are no separatists among us,” said Gennady Kernes, mayor of the Kharkiv region where protesters had occupied a government building earlier in the week, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Yatsenyuk’s visit to Donetsk came as at least seven people were injured in clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in Odessa on Friday outside a hotel where a Ukrainian presidential candidate was staying.
The protesters in Donetsk, who have held the regional administration building since Sunday, initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to one on autonomy, with the possibility of holding another later on whether the region would remain part of Ukraine or seek to become an autonomous region within Russia.
No plans to leave
But these developments have done little to change the situation at the besieged buildings.
According to Al Jazeera’s Kim Vinnel, reporting from Donetsk, protesters “say they were not invited and have not been involved in direct negotations” with the prime minister. “They have no plans to leave the building right now, and they are maintaining their positions on a referendum.
“Barricades are still up and reinforcements are arriving all at the same time that politicans have started ariving to these building to see if it’s possible to reach a solution,” our reporter said.
|Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid reports from Luhansk|
Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted in February after months of protests over his decision to ditch an EU trade pact in favour of closer ties with Moscow. Last month, the Crimea region voted to secede and was annexed by Russia.
On Friday, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that European stability was being threatened by rising anti-Russian sentiment over the Ukraine crisis, according to the AFP news agency.
“The current inflaming of anti-Russian sentiments takes place against the background of a spike of racism and xenophobia in many European countries, an increase in the number of ultra-radical groups and turning a blind eye to neo-Nazi phenomena, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere,” Lavrov said.
But Russia has continued to pile pressure on Ukraine, with President Vladimir Putin on Thursday warning European leaders of a risk that gas supplies going through Ukraine would be cut off it it failed to settle huge debts, which would consecutively block deliveries reaching the rest of the continent.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies on Friday that Russia had not heard from the countries to which Putin sent the letter.
Before leaving Donetsk for another eastern city, Yatsenyuk told reporters that he favoured a peaceful solution to the standoff.
However, he left the door open for storming the buildings occupied by armed men as a a two-day deadline announced earlier this week passed without the separatists showing any sign of vacating.
Yatsenyuk said grievances of eastern Ukraine would be addressed by the upcoming constitutional reform that will “satisfy people who want to see more powers given to regions”.
He mentioned abolishing local administrations controlled by Ukraine as one of the steps to decentralise the country.
The eastern parts of Ukraine have a high proportion of Russian-speakers and many of them fear that the acting government that took over when Yanukovich fled will repress them.
Kiev and Western officials in turn claim that Russia is whipping up tensions in the east, with the aim of establishing a pretext for sending in troops, an accusation denied by Moscow.