KIEV – Ukraine’s ruling party on Monday demanded a sweeping Cabinet reshuffle, as political leaders seek to defuse the country’s biggest political crisis in a decade.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap key agreements with the EU last month and then use police force against protesters sparked the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych has offered a number of concessions, sacking senior officials over police violence and announcing an amnesty for arrested protesters, in a bid to defuse the tension.
But the pro-EU opposition has dismissed these moves as half-measures. It is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, and early presidential and parliamentary elections.
“We have put forward a demand before Azarov to reformat the government by 90 percent,” Anna German, a lawmaker with Yanukovych’s Regions Party, told reporters after talks with Azarov.
“Azarov said that he will today let the position of the faction be known to the president and conclusions will certainly be made,” she told reporters after the closed-door meeting attended by the entire cabinet.
German, a former Yanukovych aide, said the resignation of Azarov was not discussed.
The president’s parliamentary representative, Yuriy Miroshnychenko, told reporters “decisive steps” were needed.
“An emotional conversation based on principals was held. We have to take the decisive steps necessary to solve the problems,” he said.
Azarov proposed creating a working group, but the details and timing of any reshuffle had yet to be hammered out, Miroshnychenko added.
The announcement comes after the first direct talks between Yanukovych and the opposition collapsed on Friday.
On Sunday nearly 300,000 protesters flooded central Kiev despite freezing temperatures to demand the government sign the EU pact.
The authorities staged a counter rally by bussing in thousands from the provinces.
The protest movement, now in its fourth week, is planning another major rally on Tuesday, when Yanukovych is due to discuss a strategic partnership treaty with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A Kremlin aide, Andrei Belousov, told reporters ahead of the talks on Monday that Russia may give Ukraine a much-needed loan.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the capital and in western Ukraine over the past three weeks, putting intense pressure on Yanukovych to choose between the EU pact and the alliance with Moscow.
Analysts say either choice will further split the politically volatile country caught up between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east.
“On December 17, Viktor Yanukovych is flying to Moscow where he is planning to sign an agreement on selling Ukraine into the Customs Union in exchange for salvaging his own political fate,” opposition lawmaker Borys Tarasyuk said at the Sunday protest.
“I have the feeling Yanukovych does not hear the people and does not hear the European Union and all the attention the European Union pays us,” said Bogdan Baran, a 32-year-old builder from the western city of Lviv, as he drank coffee by camp fire in the protesters’ tent city in central Kiev.
Yanukovych has tried to placate demonstrators by assuring the EU that he eventually planned to sign the Association Agreement and sending a delegation to Brussels.
But the bloc abruptly suspended the talks with the delegation on Sunday, saying Ukraine’s leadership was being disingenuous.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday reiterated the bloc’s willingness to strike a partnership deal, but said the ball was in Kiev’s court.
“If there’s a clear message from Kiev we’re ready to sign tomorrow,” said Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Late on Sunday Yanukovych met with U.S. Republican Sen. John McCain, assuring him that Ukraine’s “Eurointegration course” remained unchanged, his office said.
McCain, one of the staunchest critics of Putin’s Kremlin, attended the pro-EU rally on Sunday and met with opposition leaders as well as the daughter of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yevgenia.