Ukraine’s deputy prime minister late on Wednesday said his government was prepared to discuss snap elections to defuse an escalating stand-off with pro-European protesters, in the first sign of potential compromise in the country’s worst political crisis in nearly a decade.
Asked on Ukrainian television if snap presidential and parliamentary elections could resolve the turmoil, Serhiy Arbuzov, first deputy prime minister – considered close to President Viktor Yanukovich – answered: “Absolutely.”
“I’m saying that we need to conduct negotiations, to sit around the negotiating table. And then, when some kind of official suggestions are made, to discuss them,” Mr Arbuzov added. “I do not rule out that such offers will be aired when we sit at the negotiating table . . . and I think we are ready to consider them.”
Mr Arbuzov’s comments came after Ukraine’s opposition leaders earlier in the day appealed to Europe to intervene more forcefully in their stand-off with the government that threatened to spark a financial crisis.
Yury Lutsenko, one of the protest leaders, called on EU ministers to help negotiate a compromise with the government of Mr Yanukovich in order to spare Ukraine from a social and financial collapse.
“Immediate action is needed, literally within hours,” Mr Lutsenko said. “A mission with authority is needed to help start talks with the regime.”
Mr Lutsenko suggested the EU could enact economic sanctions to hit the regime “in their bank accounts”. His comments expressed a broader frustration among protesters that the west had not done enough to support them even as the situation was becoming more dire.
The protests began two weeks ago after Ukraine’s government froze preparations to sign a landmark integration agreement with the EU in favour of reviving ties with Russia. Moscow had put heavy pressure on Kiev not to sign the EU deal, disrupting vital cross-border trade.
In a sign of the escalating tension, Mykola Azarov, prime minister, warned administrations in western Ukraine sympathetic to the pro-EU protests that they risked being cut off from state budget funding if officials flocked to the capital to “play politics”.
Mr Azarov’s comments highlighted the divisions in the country exposed by the crisis, with eastern regions remaining the base of government support – though Mr Yanukovich’s popularity has slid even there.
Despite the opposition’s appeal, many senior European diplomats will shun a planned meeting in Kiev on Thursday of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which Ukraine currently chairs.
Officials said many countries were sending only lower-level diplomats because of the tense situation and Mr Yanukovich’s failure to sign a landmark integration deal with the EU last week.
US secretary of state John Kerry, and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, will both stay away.
But foreign ministers including Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski, Germany’s Guido Westerwelle and Sweden’s Carl Bildt will attend. Mr Westerwelle arrived on Wednesday and toured Kiev’s Independence Square, where protesters are becoming increasingly entrenched behind barricades.
Poland’s Mr Sikorski, who long championed Ukraine’s EU deal, was expected to attempt to mediate in the crisis, one official said. Mr Sikorski warned before arriving in Kiev that without the kind of structural reforms demanded by an EU agreement, Ukraine “stands at the brink of bankruptcy”.
The political crisis further unsettled investors on Wednesday, with Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, down 0.3 per cent against the dollar to 8.245, its weakest since 2009. Twelve-month forward contracts that allow traders to bet on future prices indicated the hryvnia was expected to fall to 10.1 against the US currency over that period.
Mr Yanukovich continued a visit to China on Wednesday, where agreements were signed with Chinese companies to construct coal-gasification plants in a $3.7bn loan agreement.
The president will return to Ukraine via Russia, which is thought to have dangled an offer of financial aid, and which a Ukrainian delegation visited on Wednesday.
Three former Ukrainian presidents warned on Wednesday the geopolitical tug of war between Europe and Russia over the country and the domestic crisis could have “serious consequences for Ukraine’s statehood, territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty”.
“It was disturbing that, in the last days before what was to be a game-changing foreign policy achievement for Ukraine and all of Europe, Ukraine’s leadership sharply changed its vector,” they wrote in a joint statement expressing solidarity with protesters.
The pleas for help and compromise highlighted that the opposing sides in the political conflict remained far from dialogue.
Petro Poroshenko, one of the opposition leaders, told the Financial Times the opposition was demanding either the formation of a new pro-European government or snap parliamentary elections as the only way out of the crisis.
Mr Azarov, whose government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday, has promised a reshuffle, but insisted the government will not stand down.