EU, Russia move to ease tensions over Ukraine

 26 Feb 2014 - 1:12


A woman lights a candle yesterday at a makeshift memorial for those killed in recent violence in Kiev.

KIEV: World powers sought to ease tensions over Ukraine yesterday as the country’s makeshift government grappled with the threat of economic collapse and separatism after the ouster of pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovich.
Russia softened its angry tone over the sudden, weekend regime change in Ukraine, while EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton paid a visit to the ex-Soviet country that Yanukovich had tried to steer towards Moscow but whose new, interim leaders have tilted firmly towards the West.
Talks took place between US, European and Russian diplomats as the country appealed for $35bn in aid to avoid bankruptcy and interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov warned of a secessionist threat.
“In several regions of Ukraine there are very dangerous signs of separatism,” Turchynov told parliament yesterday, voicing fears that the pro-Russia east could agitate for partition after a pro-Western administration took charge of the country following months of anti-Yanukovich protests.
Russia had initially reacted with fury to the weekend’s political changes — brought about by last week’s clashes that left nearly 100 dead — accusing the new leadership of waging an “armed mutiny”.
But yesterday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to soften the tone, saying Ukraine should not be forced to choose between Russia and the West.
“We confirmed our principled position of non-intervention in Ukraine’s internal affairs,” Lavrov said in Moscow.
“We are interested in Ukraine being part of the European family, in all senses of the word,” he said. “It is dangerous and counterproductive to force Ukraine into a choice.”
Ashton also sought to ease tensions on her trip to Kiev.
“We offer support, not interference for the future,” Ashton told reporters in a bid to discredit claims that the West wants to bring Ukraine into its sphere of influence.
She also stressed “the importance of the strong links between Ukraine and Russia and the importance of having them maintained”.
The events of the past week have capped more than three months of protests against Yanukovich’s rule sparked by his November decision to spurn an historic pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia.
One of the stars to emerge during this unrest was Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight world champion boxer who became one of the three major protest leaders.
The 42-year-old announced yesterday he would stand for president in polls set for May 25, shortly after the electoral commission officially kicked off the campaign for elections.
Candidates have until March 30 to put their names forward, and so far, only the pro-Russia governor of Kharkiv, a region in the east, has also announced his candidacy.
And while Ukraine’s opposition-dominated parliament yesterday delayed the formation of a new government until tomorrow, it voted to apply to the International Criminal Court to prosecute Yanukovich over the “mass murder” of protesters.
A resolution, overwhelmingly supported by parliament, linked Yanukovich, who was ousted by the legislature on Saturday and is now on the run, to police violence against protesters which it said had led to the deaths of more than 100 citizens of Ukraine and other states.
The Hague-based court said it would need a request from the government of Ukraine giving it jurisdiction over the deaths.
The resolution said former interior minister Vitaly Zakharchenko and former prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka, who are also being sought by the authorities, should also be sent for trial at the ICC.
The new government will face the tough task of maintaining financial and territorial stability in Ukraine ahead of the May polls, amid concerns over separatist tendencies in Russian-speaking areas of the east and south.
US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns was due in Kiev yesterday, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague held talks in Washington with US Secretary of State John Kerry and the International Monetary Fund. He is due to visit Ukraine soon.
Russia’s displeasure at the changes convulsing its neighbour has translated into fears that a much-needed $15bn bailout from Moscow announced in December may be abandoned after only one payment of $3bn came through.
Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak yesterday said Russia had no legal obligation to disburse further tranches of the bailout.
Ukraine’s interim finance minister Yuriy Kolobov said the “planned volume of macroeconomic assistance for Ukraine may reach around $35bn” by the end of next year, and called for an international donors conference.
Ashton however offered no concrete commitments of economic assistance yesterday, saying only that the International Monetary Fund was “very keen” to meet the future new government.