Ukraine talks begin without rebels
Published 14/05/2014 | 20:26
Ukraine's government has launched talks on decentralising power as part of a European-backed peace plan but did not invite its main foes, the pro-Russia insurgents who have declared independence in the east.
That deliberate oversight left it unclear what the negotiations might accomplish.
In his opening remarks, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said authorities were "ready for a dialogue" but insisted they will not talk to the separatists who have seized buildings and fought government troops across eastern Ukraine.
Mr Turchynov chaired the first in a series of round tables with spiritual leaders, lawmakers, government figures and regional officials as part of a peace plan drafted by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a security group that also includes Russia and the United States.
"Let's have a dialogue, let's discuss specific proposals," Mr Turchynov said, "But those armed people who are trying to wage a war on their own country, those who are with arms in their hands trying to dictate their will, or rather the will of another country, we will use legal procedures against them and they will face justice."
Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the round table that they will be holding discussions across the country "in as many regions as possible," but did not name any specific one.
Oleksandr Efremov, leader of the Party of Regions in the Ukrainian parliament, the support base for former president Viktor Yanukovych, voiced hope that the discussions will be held in the east "where things are perceived in a different way".
Mr Efremov called on the government to withdraw troops from the Donetsk region and urged authorities to understand that people are genuinely wary of the new government and that they have not seen any friendly steps from Kiev yet.
The OSCE road map aims to halt fighting between government forces and pro-Russia separatists in the east and de-escalate tensions ahead of Ukraine's May 25 presidential vote. It lets the Ukrainian government decide the specifics of the talks.
The Ukrainian leader also said the government would not stop its offensive to retake eastern cities now under the control of the separatists who declared independence on Monday in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, home to 6.6 million people.
Insurgents in the east shrugged off the round table talks as meaningless.
"We haven't received any offers to join a round table and dialogue," said Denis Pushilin, an insurgent leader in Donetsk. "If the authorities in Kiev want a dialogue, they must come here. If we go to Kiev, they will arrest us."
Asked if they would be willing to take part in discussions if the round table was held in the east, Mr Pushilin said that "talks with Kiev authorities could only be about one thing: the recognition of the Donetsk People's Republic".
Even so, European officials applauded the start of the talks. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, welcomed the round table on his Twitter account, voicing hope the next meeting would take place in eastern Ukraine.
Sawsan Chebli, a spokeswoman for German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine's acceptance of the round-table format was a step in the right direction, whether the pro-Russia separatists were invited or not.
"We are of the opinion that this national dialogue will help to de-escalate the situation," she said.
The OSCE itself would not comment on the invitee list.
Russia has strongly backed the OSCE road map while the United States, which says it is worth a try, views its prospects for success with scepticism.
Ukraine and the West have accused Moscow of fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, where insurgents have seized administrative buildings, fought government forces and declared independence for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.