Ukraine’s president and prime minister will resume talks on Saturday in a bid to defuse an escalating political crisis and settle a dangerous arm-wrestle between the rivals for control of special security forces.
President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych met for three hours late on Friday after Yushchenko took control of crack Interior Ministry troops in a move Yanukovych condemned as “anti-constitutional”.
“The talks have finished for today. The meeting unfolded in a constructive manner. A second round of talks is scheduled for 12pm” (9am GMT) on Saturday, said Yushchenko spokesperson Irina Vannikova.
Also present at the talks were Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of Ukraine’s main opposition party; Ivan Plyushch, head of Ukraine’s security council; and Oleksandr Moroz, the Speaker of Parliament.
Tensions reached new highs in the weeks-old political crisis when pro-Western Yushchenko ordered that authority over the special troops be taken from the government headed by pro-Russia Yanukovych.
The presidential decree released on Yushchenko’s website covered Interior Ministry troops often used for anti-riot operations, but did not affect the police force or the ministry’s elite Berkut unit.
The move sparked immediate international concern about the rising political temperature in Kiev, with the United States calling on both sides to resolve their dispute without violence and to abide by democratic rules.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said he was worried about the situation and urged all Ukrainian authorities to abide by the law.
European Union external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner urged both sides “to refrain from any action which would further exacerbate the situation, especially by involving the security forces”.
Yanukovych angrily rejected the president’s order as an anti-constitutional “interference in the activities of the executive branch”, while speaking to Western diplomats in a televised meeting.
The Interior Ministry rejected the presidential decree as unconstitutional. “The ministry will adhere faithfully to Ukrainian law, including those of 1992,” said a ministry spokesperson. The law stipulates that the internal troops are subject to the authority of the Interior Ministry, he said.
Parliamentary Speaker Moroz, a Yanukovych ally, described the president’s move as a “coup attempt”.
But Yanukovych then adopted a more conciliatory tone, appealing to the president to “return to political dialogue”.
The elite Berkut forces angered the president on Thursday by defying his order to dismiss the country’s prosecutor general, a Yanukovych ally, who refused to step down. The elite forces arrived at the offices where the prosecutor general was holed up and scuffled with the president’s security personnel.
The latest round of political recriminations in Ukraine began with Yushchenko’s dissolution of Parliament last month, part of an ongoing dispute with the prime minister. Yushchenko favours full integration with the West, including Nato, while the prime minister prefers close ties with Moscow.
The two have been locked in stalemate over the timing of new parliamentary elections, and a reported deal appears in tatters after the latest stand-off.
“I would say that I no longer have any optimism that results can be achieved considering the opposition demonstrated by the two sides,” Yushchenko said on Friday, Interfax news agency reported.
Control over Interior Ministry forces was crucial in the Orange Revolution of 2004, when mass street protests helped bring Yushchenko to the presidency, overturning a flawed vote initially granted to Yanukovych. — AFP