Ukraine teetered on the edge between violence and reconciliation Tuesday as riot police forcibly dismantled barricades and forced protesters back from the president's office while President Viktor Yanukovych called for national dialogue.
Now nearing its third week, the standoff between President Yanukovych’s administration and thousands of shivering protesters who have occupied Kiev's Independence Square and sporadically blockaded buildings has paralyzed the government and nudged the near-bankrupt country toward default.
The protests, sparked by Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union, are the largest since the 2004 Orange Revolution.
There were reports of injuries on both sides as riot police moved in early Tuesday, but no sign of the harsh tactics employed by police almost two weeks ago when they battered protesters with batons and stun grenades and made mass arrests. That crackdown triggered a storm of public outrage that brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators onto the streets a few days later.
Later Tuesday Yanukovych sat down with three former Ukrainian presidents-- Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko -- and appeared to accept their advice to release jailed protesters and seek round-table talks with opposition leaders to find a peaceful way out of the crisis. According to the independent Interfax agency, Yanukovych subsequently instructed his chief prosecutor to free all people detained at rallies whose "degree of guilt is not serious."
It is not clear whether opposition leaders, who have been demanding the government's resignation and early presidential elections, will accept Yanukovych's offer of talks.
"It was not the opposition that gathered on (Independence Square), it was the people of Ukraine who came out and gave us the right to represent them," says Olga Bodnar, a parliamentary lawmaker with the party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated in the 2010 election.
"If the authorities are now willing to hear the voice of the people, we will be ready to sit down and talk with them," she adds.
But Yanukovych's willingness to free prisoners apparently does not extend to Ms. Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for "abuse of power" during a previous stint as prime minister. Opposition leaders may make her release a condition of joining the proposed talks, some experts suggest.
"A round table does not fit very well in a square prison cell," opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk was quoted by news agencies as saying.
In reneging on a pledge to sign an association pact with the EU, Yanukovych has argued that Ukraine was not ready for an arrangement that would rupture Ukraine's trade with Russia, its largest trading partner. Ukrainian authorities insisted that not signing the accord was a delaying tactic while they sought better terms from the EU and greater understanding from Moscow, and that their strategic goal is still to integrate Ukraine into the European community.
Yanukovych repeated that claim Tuesday in his meeting with the three former presidents.
"European integration course of the state remains unchangeable. It is enshrined in the laws of our state," Ukrainian news agencies quoted him as saying.
Ukraine's program of reforms, aimed at making the country economically compatible with the EU, will continue, he pledged.
Moscow has warned Ukraine that joining the EU free trade zone would lead Russia to limit market access for Ukrainian produce and manufactured goods.
Russian-led customs union
Last week Yanukovych met with his Russia counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi in an effort to find a solution to the impasse. Rumors that Mr. Putin may have urged Yanukovych to join a Russian-led customs union have been denied by both the Kremlin and the Ukrainian president. Still, many in Moscow are clearly hoping that Ukraine's political crisis will ultimately lead Yanukovych back into the Russian fold.
"This crisis is not about some European choice for Ukraine, that's just a pretext. It's about a struggle for power," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
"Russia stands ready to help Ukraine, and Putin promised Yanukovych financial aid [in Sochi]. Russia is ready to revive [Soviet-era] joint ventures in aviation, space industry and other spheres," he says. “Russia is ready to reduce the price of gas to Ukraine in return for some preferences in the transport sphere.”
Any sharp turn toward Russia, however, would seriously aggravate Yanukovych's political problems at home, and experts say his best bet is to keep trying to play Moscow against the EU, hoping for concessions from each side, while refusing to commit Ukraine to any definitive course.
"The authorities will try to temporize, to maneuver in order to preserve their positions, to try to find understandings with Russia as well as with the European Union," says Viktor Nebozhenko, director of Ukrainian Barometer, an independent Kiev think tank. “They do not understand that the society is changing, and will no longer allow such non-transparent dealings.”
Western diplomats have been shuttling to Kiev to call for calm and reconciliation. US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland met Tuesday with opposition leaders and was due to hold talks later with Yanukovych. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton separately met the Ukrainian leader and urged him to show "utmost restraint" in handling the protesters.
The attention paid by Western governments to Ukraine's political crisis has raised hackles in Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described reactions in some Western capitals as "hysterical. And the appeal by US government-funded think tank Freedom House for Yanukovych to resign if there should be more violence has prompted accusations by Russian politicians of "outside interference" in Ukraine's internal affairs.
"Special concerns are raised by the open interference of foreign statesmen in the internal affairs of the sovereign Ukraine, which contradicts all international norms," read a resolution adopted by Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on Tuesday.