BERLIN The German diplomat moderating 'round table' talks to promote political reconciliation in Ukraine said on Friday the first meetings this week had included members of pro-Russian separatist groups such as the mayor of the eastern city of Donetsk, making it a meaningful process.
"It wasn't just a show put on by the Ukrainian government," Wolfgang Ischinger told Reuters from Kiev.
"There were also representatives, mayors and members of parliament from the east of the country, including for example the mayor of Donetsk," he said.
"Others were invited but didn't feel able to attend. So it is absurd to assert that the east wasn't represented," Ischinger said in a telephone interview. "It was represented, and there was discussion of the controversy."
The 68-year-old former German diplomat, who runs the annual Munich Security Conference and took part in international talks on Bosnia and Kosovo, was appointed to the Ukraine talks by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The round table, convened in a bid to quell a pro-Russian rebellion in the industrialized east against the pro-Western interim government in Kiev, held its first session on Wednesday.
The immediate aim of the talks is to improve the atmosphere to permit a presidential election to go ahead on May 25 in as much of Ukraine as possible, barring Crimea, Ischinger said. The next session is scheduled to reconvene in the eastern city of Kharkiv this weekend.
"NOT PERFECT, BUT MEANINGFUL"
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed this on Friday as progress. But the self-appointed pro-Russian mayor of Slaviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, said he had not been invited, and Moscow criticized the process for such exclusions.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleksander Turchinov, and Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk have ruled out sitting down to talk with separatists who refuse to renounce violence - a position that has been supported by Germany's Merkel.
Wednesday's talks brought together ministers, political party leaders, candidates for the presidential election on May 25, business representatives and local government officials.
The unrest in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea have contributed to the worst East-West crisis since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
"My impression from the first meeting is less negative than had been described," said Ischinger. "The first meeting was not perfect, perhaps, but it was meaningful in terms of content and politically."
The German mediator said a plan to hold the next round of talks in Donetsk had been dropped for security reasons, but being able to move it to Kharkiv showed the process was "being taken seriously by all involved".
(Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Kevin Liffey)