Ukraine’s interim leaders on Wednesday pushed a plan to allow the regions a greater say over their affairs, but the exclusion of separatists from round table talks cast doubt over whether the move could defuse the crisis.
The talks brought together politicians and civil groups in an effort to quell a pro-Russian rebellion in the industrialized Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, which has triggered fears of a break-up of the former Soviet republic.
They came at a tense moment for Kiev. On Tuesday, seven soldiers were killed in an ambush near the city of Kramatorsk, the deadliest attack on security forces since they were sent to tackle the uprising in the east in April.
Voters in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk backed self-rule in two referendums held on Sunday despite protestations from Kiev, which sees Russia’s hand behind the rebellion and denounced the votes as illegal.
After the voting, rebel leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk called for their regions to become part of Russia although their call has not been taken up by Moscow.
When the round table talks opened in the parliament building in Kiev, the country’s main leaders sharply attacked Russia, with acting president Oleksander Turchinov accusing Moscow of launching “systematic action to destabilize eastern and southern regions of Ukraine” to produce an “explosive situation”.
And, in comments angled at the separatist rebels who were excluded from the talks, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said: “We will conduct a dialogue with all those who do not shoot and do not kill citizens.”
But Yatseniuk went on to press a decentralization plan ceding greater powers to the regions which the Kiev authorities hope will address disaffection in eastern Ukraine and help undercut the influence of rebels seeking to break altogether with Kiev and join the Russian Federation. Such a scenario is seen by Kiev as pointing a way to resolving the crisis.
Under the plan, regions could hold back a portion of taxes for direct use in improving infrastructure and conditions for local businesses.
Ukraine’s wealthiest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov, whose vast mining and steel-producing empire stretches across the Donbass, threw his weight behind the decentralization strategy, describing it as the “only right way” of ending the crisis.
“I strongly believe that Donbass can be happy only in a united Kiev,” he said in a statement issued by his holding company, System Capital Management.
Wednesday’s talks brought together ministers, political party leaders, candidates for the presidential election on May 25, business representatives and local government officials.
Kiev’s exclusion of the rebels – whom it describes as “terrorists” – from the talks has drawn criticism from abroad. Moscow has said there should be direct talks between separatists and Kiev.