Protests turn increasingly combustible as Ukraine president announces talks

President Yanukovych wants to establish a 'platform for understanding,' but with riot police taking up positions around the main protest site in Kiev, the conciliatory move may come too late.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Pro-European Union activists get ready to defend their tent camp on the Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013. The policemen, wearing helmets and holding shields, formed a chain across Kiev's main street outside the city building. Organizers called on protesters to vacate the city hall and the other building which the opposition had used as its headquarters.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has announced he is assembling a "nationwide panel discussion," consisting of himself and his three presidential predecessors, to establish "a platform for understanding" to resolve his country's rising instability.

But the meeting, set for Tuesday, may not come quickly enough for protesters, as riot police have begun to take up positions in Kiev, a day after hundreds of thousands took to the street to demand Mr. Yanukovych's resignation and that of his cabinet.

Yanukovych announced plans for the round table on the presidential website today. The site says that the proposal was put forward by Leonid Kravchuk, the country's first president.

Events on the ground may outpace the initiative, however, as Kiev appear to be increasingly combustible. The New York Times reports that the Ukrainian government shut down three subway stations around Independence Square in Kiev, as "battalions of police moved in and took up positions outside the perimeter of the main protest site."

Demonstrators were scrambling to reinforce barricades, and they moved public benches, wood planks and anything else available to add to the fortifications that have closed off the area for more than a week.

Some demonstrators appeared to be evacuating Kiev City Hall, which they had occupied, in the expectation that it would be an early target of any enforcement action. A crowd was gathering outside the building, including many television news crews, indicating that whatever happened would be highly publicized. ...

Senior government officials had promised Western diplomats that they would not seek to oust peaceful protesters by force. But the events of Sunday may have changed those calculations, as the authorities seemed to lose control of large swaths of the capital.

Sunday saw crowds in Kiev of at least 100,000 people – the figure reported by the Ukrainian interior ministry, though protesters said their numbers were several times that. They pressed their demand for Yanukovych's resignation, with their anger particularly driven by rumors that Yanukovych had signed a trade deal with Russia during a meeting with Vladimir Putin on Friday. While both governments deny that such an agreement was even discussed, Kit Gillet reports for The Christian Science Monitor that the possibility energized the crowd.

“We don’t know whether he signed anything or not, but irrespective we understand that he is inclined to sign something with Russia,” says Oleh Pluhararenko, a lawyer from Kiev, who held a banner reading: Hey Putin, leave us alone. “Signing something with Russia means we are selling our country to them,” he says.

And in a visual display of their hostility toward Russia, protesters tore down a large statue of Lenin that stood in Kiev's Bessarabska Square, reports CNN. Police are investigating the incident, and the Ukrainian state news agency reported that a lawmaker for a nationalist party claimed his group was responsible.

In an apparent attempt to cool the rising temperatures in Kiev, Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said today that an agreement for Ukraine to join Russia's nascent customs union is years off, reports Bloomberg BusinessWeek.

“There are no preliminary agreements,” he told reporters in Moscow. “It’s a long and complicated path because it assumes a massive amount of work and a clear desire to join on the part of a country that’s a possible candidate. We have seen no such clear desire.”

And Sergei Markov, an adviser to Mr. Putin's staff, told Bloomberg that "The situation in Ukraine is too explosive right now [for Ukraine to join the union] and the president understands that."

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