Ukrainian president agrees to talks to defuse crisis

As riot police descend on Kiev to quell demonstrations, Yanukovich moves to ease tensions

Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich agreed Monday to meet with the country's three former presidents to discuss how to end the political crisis that has drawn hundreds of thousands of people to protests in the capital, Kiev.

The president said the round table would take place Tuesday.

During a massive rally on Sunday that continued on Monday, Ukraine's opposition leaders told pro-Europe demonstrators to pressure Yanukovich to sack his government and drop plans for closer ties with Russia.

The protesters, gathered on Kiev's Independence Square, are furious with the Yanukovich government for its decision to ditch a landmark pact with the European Union in favor of a trade deal with Moscow, Ukraine's Soviet-era overlord. Scores of riot police were dispatched to the area on Monday, stoking fears of a crackdown.

Angry crowds that brandished the flag of the nationalist Freedom Party toppled the statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin on Sunday, police said, protesting the country's strengthening ties with Moscow.

The latest demonstrations have escalated a weeks-long confrontation between authorities and protesters that has raised fears of political and economic instability in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic home to 46 million people.

"This is a decisive moment when all Ukrainians have gathered here because they do not want to live in a country where corruption rules and where there is no justice," said world heavyweight boxing champion–turned–opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's security service opened a criminal probe on Sunday into alleged attempts by some politicians to seize state power. The investigation has been opened "into the illegal actions by certain politicians aimed at the seizure of state power," a Ukrainian Security Service spokeswoman told AFP. The politicians were not named, but the probe appears to target opposition figures who have repeatedly called on Yanukovich to quit.

The opposition accuses Yanukovich, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, of preparing to take Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union, which they see as an attempt to recreate the Soviet Union.

"We are on a razor's edge between a final plunge into cruel dictatorship and a return home to the European community," jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko said in an emotional message to the crowd read by her daughter Yevgenia Tymoshenko.

"There is a significantly greater chance of ending up in a medieval dictatorship. The choice is in your hands," said Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's main rival, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of office in a case condemned by many in the West as politically motivated.

Tymoshenko, whose fiery rhetoric galvanized protesters in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and '05 that denied Yanukovich the presidency then, appealed to the protesters not to give in or even negotiate with Yanukovich's "gang."

A man takes a sledgehammer to the statue of Lenin.
REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Far-right nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok asked the crowd, "Do we want to go under the yoke of Moscow?" to which they bellowed, "No!" When he asked, "Do we want to return to Europe?" they yelled, "Yes!"

A group of protesters later moved toward the government building, less than a mile away, and began to erect tents and barricades, apparently with the aim of stopping normal government activity next week.

Independence Square has been transformed into a makeshift village of tents, festooned with Ukrainian blue and yellow flags, EU flags and opposition banners, beneath a large television screen.

In a gesture sure to annoy Yanukovich, protesters hoisted a huge portrait of Tymoshenko onto a New Year tree festooned with anti-government placards that towers over the square.

The Moscow and Kiev governments have denied that Putin and Yanukovich discussed the customs union in their talks on Friday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Further bilateral talks are planned for Dec. 17.

Yanukovich and Putin, who regards Ukraine as strategically vital to Moscow's interests, are widely believed to have struck a bargain in which Ukraine obtains cheaper Russian gas and possibly credits in exchange for backing away from the E.U.

Klitschko, who appears to be emerging as a possible leader in waiting, told protesters they would achieve their aim, though he stressed the need to stay peaceful.

Last weekend, riot police beat protesters and journalists, triggering E.U. condemnation and boosting the protesters' ranks.

"We do not want to be kept quiet by a policeman's truncheon," Klitschko told Sunday's crowd.

He demanded the release of political prisoners, punishment of those responsible for last weekend's police crackdown, the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov's government and early presidential and parliamentary elections.

Huge numbers of people arriving from western and central Ukraine, where opposition politicians enjoy strong support, have swelled the numbers of those camping out in Independence Square.

A Tymoshenko ally, former Interior Minister Yuri Lutsenko, appealed to people in Russian-speaking areas of the east — the bedrock of Yanukovich's power — to turn out and join the protests. "We are the same people as you are, except that they stole from you earlier," he said.

Police have threatened to eject protesters occupying public buildings, including Kiev's City Hall, which is a stone's throw from the makeshift barricades limiting access to Independence Square.

But on Sunday it remained the organizational headquarters of the protests, where volunteers were signing up be on security duty or offer legal aid to demonstrators should the protests turn sour.

"The current authorities have been completely discredited by their actions and the police brutality. What unites everyone here is a desire to see a change of government. We need new elections," Sviatislav Zaporozhit, 26, who works in retail in Kiev, told Reuters.

"I don't want to go back to what my parents lived under the Soviet Union. ... When I am old, I want to live like people in Europe. I want to live in a normal country."

Al Jazeera and wire services

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