KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich will not use force to clear the streets and may challenge his opponents to early elections if they fail to compromise, according to reported comments by a political ally.
Emerging on the day the president returned from sick leave and as parliament convenes for a new term on Tuesday, it may be an attempt to break a deadlock that has gripped central Kiev - and Ukraine’s ailing economy - since November, when Yanukovich spurned an EU trade deal and sought aid instead from Russia.
At least six people have been killed in the past two weeks and fierce clashes between riot police and increasingly militant squads of hardline protesters have prompted concern that the big former Soviet state of 45 million people, which separates Russia from the European Union, might descend into civil war.
However, Yanukovich, possibly comforted by an opinion survey last week showing both he and his party topping polls with about 20 percent support in Ukraine’s fragmented political system, may be ready to call the bluff of opponents who want him to quit.
A leading member of parliament from Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions was quoted in local media late on Monday saying the president had told his allies he would not declare a state of emergency or use troops or other force to clear central Kiev’s Maidan protest camp or public buildings occupied by protesters.
“We have every possibility of liberating administrative premises and even liberating Maidan by force,” Yanukovich was quoted as saying by lawmaker Yuri Miroshnichenko. “I will never do that, because these are also our citizens.”
Miroshnichenko’s remarks were made to Ukraine’s ICTV television, as reported by the news website Ukrainska Pravda.
No comment was immediately available from the president and there was no immediate response from opposition leaders.
Miroshnichenko said there had been discussions recently within the party about declaring a state of emergency, a move that could, among other things, let the government use troops.
“There will be no state of emergency,” he said.
The member of parliament went on to cite Yanukovich’s willingness to hold a presidential election a year early, and a parliamentary election that is otherwise not due until 2017.
“The president said that if politicians can’t now come to an agreement, reach joint decisions and implement them, then the only democratic way of resolving the situation is early elections,” Miroshnichenko was quoted as saying.
“And he (Yanukovich) said: ‘Both you will face early elections and I will face early elections.’”
Yanukovich faces tough choices, caught between the West, which backs the protesters - though largely with words rather than deeds or cash - and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has given him a large, but conditional, economic lifeline.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrives in Kiev late on Tuesday for separate meetings on Wednesday with Yanukovich and opposition leaders. Other EU officials on Monday played down weekend comments from Ashton that Europe and the United States were working to offer funds to help Ukraine enact reforms to stabilize its political system.
However, the U.S. State Department said Washington and Brussels were in preliminary discussions on financial help for Ukraine if a new, technocrat government is formed. A senior State Department official is due in Kiev this week.
Russia has suspended financial aid granted in November when Yanukovich turned down the EU deal. Moscow is waiting to see whom he now appoints as prime minister following his removal of Mykola Azarov in an attempt to appease the opposition.
The speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich ally, said on Monday the president still wanted to discuss the post of premier with opponents this week. Yanukovich may meet Putin on Friday at the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia and he may hope to have named a new prime minister by then.
In November, he rejected at the last minute the free trade pact with the European Union that many Ukrainians saw as a chance to share in the prosperity of their western neighbors.
Russia, Ukraine’s biggest export customer and the supplier of most of its energy, had threatened ruinous trade sanctions if a country many Russians see as integral to their own nationhood tried to integrate into the EU market.
In the end, Yanukovich, who has the backing of many wealthy “oligarchs” from Ukraine’s industrial, mainly Russian-speaking east, preferred to take a $15 billion package of loans and cheaper gas from President Vladimir Putin.
The European Union had also held out the prospect of budget support, along with the International Monetary Fund, to tide Ukraine over yawning gaps in its state finances. But Kiev has resisted conditions attached to Western aid, notably cuts in subsidies that would hurt the president’s electoral prospects.
Some analysts say Yanukovich’s allies among the business elite may also prefer loans from Russia to EU and IMF terms.
On his first public appearance since Wednesday, following a sick leave some saw as a tactical move to buy time, Yanukovich looked in fair health but confined himself to warning against the actions of radical protesters:
“We must say no to extremism, radicalism, the fanning of enmity in society, which is the basis of the political fight against the authorities,” he said in remarks on video.
When parliament meets, opposition leaders want further concessions, including a broader amnesty for detainees than one granted last week and a return to an earlier constitution, which would curb presidential powers and give parliament greater control over the formation of governments.
Party allegiances in the single-chamber legislature have been fluid and it is unclear what majority Yanukovich commands.
Editing by Lisa Shumaker