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Ukraine PM urges more autonomy for provinces

Arseniy Yatsenyuk has tried to allay pro-Russian Ukrainian fears and deflect Russian pretexts for more intervention

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Friday told leaders in the country's restive east that he is committed to allowing regions to have more powers, but it remained unclear how his ideas differed from the demands of pro-Russian protesters now occupying government buildings or Russia's advocacy of federalization of the country.

Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests. Last month, the Crimea region voted to secede and was annexed by Russia.

In the intervening period, tensions have spread to Ukraine's eastern provinces, where pro-Russian protesters calling for separation from Ukraine have occupied government buildings in the cities of Luhansk, Kharkiv and Donetsk and refused to back down amidst amnesty offers from Kyiv. 

Hoping to diffuse the protracted stand-off, Yatsenyuk took his message of autonomy to Donetsk Friday and met with local authorities, in part to seek a way out of the crisis. The officials whom Yatsenyuk met in Donetsk did not include representatives of the protesters, according to the Associated Press. The officials asked Yatsenyuk to allow referenda on autonomy for their regions, not on secession.

"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.

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Russia ratcheted up the pressure on Ukraine on Thursday when President Vladimir Putin warned European leaders of a risk to gas supplies going through Ukraine. He has threatened that Russia could shut off shipments to Ukraine if it fails to pay its mammoth debts, estimated at $2.2 billion.

In response, Ukraine on Friday said it would consider purchasing gas from Europe to shore up its energy security.

Yuri Prodan, Ukraine’s Energy Minister, told parliament that the EU would stand in solidarity with Ukraine if Russia reduced supplies, making sure Moscow could not increase flows through alternative pipelines to bypass its former Soviet neighbor.

"Ukraine cannot pay such a political, uneconomic price, so now we are negotiating with the European Union about reverse deliveries into Ukraine," Prodan said.

Russia has nearly doubled the gas price it charges Ukraine, punishing an economy that for years was mismanaged by pro-Moscow former President Viktor Yanukovych and has been in free fall since he was toppled in violent protests.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stepped up the pressure on Ukraine on Friday, reiterating that its gas debt was mounting and Kyiv was failing to meet its payment obligations, a wording that could trigger the reduction of supplies. That sentiment was echoed by Putin Friday, who called Ukraine's failure to meet its debt obligations on gas shipments "absolutely intolerable," according the Interfax news agency.

Meanwhile, protesters in Donetsk and Luhansk continue to occupy government buildings and call for referenda on regional autonomy that could presage more annexations by Russia.

Before leaving Donetsk for another eastern city, Yatsenyuk told reporters that he favors a peaceful solution to the stand-off. However, he left the door open for storming the buildings occupied by armed men, though a two-day deadline announced earlier this week has passed.

Yatsenyuk said grievances in eastern Ukraine would be appeased by the upcoming constitutional reform that will "satisfy people who want to see more powers given to regions." He mentioned abolishing Kyiv-controlled local administration as one of the steps to decentralize the country.

Yatsenyuk’s appearance in Donetsk came on the same day that an unrelated mining accident in killed seven people after an explosion caused by leaking gas tore through a coal mine. Fifty-two miners were working at a depth of 1,300 meters when the accident occurred at the Skochinsky mine. Apart from the seven killed, an eighth miner was taken to hospital with injuries.

The protesters in Donetsk, meanwhile, 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. They floated the idea of holding a future referendum on whether the region would remain part of Ukraine or seek to become an autonomous region within Russia.

The eastern parts of Ukraine have a high proportion of Russian-speakers and many of them fear that the acting government will repress them. Kyiv 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.

Russia is calling on Ukraine to change its constitution to become a federalized state in which regions would have more control of their own affairs. Ukraine's government has resisted federalization, saying that would lay the groundwork for the country's breakup.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was visiting Bulgaria on Friday, again urged Russia to pull back its troops from Ukraine's borders, and he added that NATO is taking steps to deal with the instability created by Russia's "illegitimate" actions.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew delivered a warning on Thursday to Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, telling him that the Obama administration was willing to impose "additional significant sanctions" if Russia escalates the Ukraine situation. The Treasury said in a statement that Lew described Russia's annexation of Crimea as "illegal and illegitimate."

Lew met Siluanov in Washington, D.C. in advance of talks between finance ministers and central bank presidents of the Group of Seven major economic powers and a broader Group of 20, which includes the traditional powers and emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday blamed the crisis on the West and its support for Ukraine's fledging government, which he described as illegitimate. Lavrov said the solution to the crisis would be a "deep" constitutional reform in Ukraine that would guarantee Ukraine's "nonaligned status," meaning a guarantee that it would not join NATO.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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