Ukraine unrest continues

A woman shouts slogans and holds a Ukrainian flag during an opposition rally at Independence Square in Kiev. (Genya Savilov / AFP/Getty Images / December 2, 2013)

KIEV, Ukraine — President Viktor Yanukovich appeared to give ground Monday in the face of massive demonstrations that threatened to hobble his government, seeking to reopen talks with the European Union about forging a closer economic relationship.

As protesters declared a general strike and blocked access to the government's headquarters in central Kiev, Yanukovich spoke by phone with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to ask whether Ukraine could send a delegation to discuss a previously scuttled free trade agreement, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

Barroso agreed, the news agency said, but stressed that the EU would not renegotiate the agreement.

Ukraine's government has been shaken in recent days by the country's most serious political crisis since the Orange Revolution of 2004. There has been a massive outpouring of opposition to Yanukovich's decision to forgo signing the EU agreement, which would strengthen Ukraine's economic ties with Western Europe.

Russia, Ukraine's eastern neighbor and largest energy supplier, has furiously lobbied against the accord, using both the carrot of potential energy savings and the stick of a halt in Ukrainian imports.

Once known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has long been torn between a desire to integrate with Western Europe and a need to remain economically entwined with Russia.

On Monday, hundreds of opposition activists surrounded the Council of Ministers building, the center of Ukraine's government in central Kiev, parking several lines of cars in strategic spots around it and blocking entries by mobilizing lines of people waving blue-and-yellow national flags. A huge European Union flag, with its circle of yellow stars against a blue background, was affixed to the back metal gates of the building.

Speaking to cheering supporters outside the building, opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko declared that the government headquarters in effect had been shut down.

"I am happy to announce that the Council of Ministers was the first organization that joined the general strike we declared," announced Lutsenko, who served as interior minister in the government of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. He spent two years in jail on a charge of abuse of office and was released this year; Tymoshenko remains imprisoned.

Government spokesman Vitaly Lukyanenko told Interfax-Ukraine that government workers blocked from their offices were working from home.

Government buildings were also reported to be surrounded by protesters in western Ukraine, which has been the center of support for closer ties with Europe. Yanukovich retains substantial support in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, where lawmakers called on him to declare a state of emergency in the country.

Monday's demonstrations were peaceful, in contrast to the day before, when protests outside the presidential headquarters building ended in several hours of battles between protesters and police.

Yanukovich, whose resignation is the key demand of the opposition, called for peaceful dialogue.

"I am convinced that even a bad peace is better than any war," Yanukovich said in an interview with local television stations at his country residence near Kiev. "It is very important that these [protest] actions would always be peaceful."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is presumed to have pressured Yanukovich to turn down the EU, condemned Sunday's violence, calling it "more like a pogrom than a revolution," according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

The Ukrainian opposition has set up camp in Independence Square in central Kiev, installing tents and barricading the perimeter with construction materials and parts of a huge artificial Christmas tree that authorities had planned to erect there last week.

The ranks of protesters shrink during the night and swell during the day as activists listen to opposition leaders' speeches and musical performances. At one point Monday, a group of priests led the group in prayer.

The perimeter, initially protected by young students, is now guarded by burly army veterans.

"If any riot police force or even army troops dare attack they will have to deal with us first, and I am sure that will not be something to their liking," said Pavlo Kovalchuk, 48, a Soviet veteran of Moscow's war in Afghanistan who is the head of the protest camp's security.

World super heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, a leading opposition lawmaker, warned that the government would try to provoke the demonstrators.

"I can't say that we have reached a breakthrough point in our struggle," Klitschko said in an interview. "The first stage in our plan is the resignation of the government — which, as we demanded, will be discussed in parliament Tuesday. But we need the reset of the entire system of power in our country, which now is working not for the benefit of the country but for a benefit of a handful of people in power."

One expert said both sides are making tactical mistakes. Leaders of the opposition have failed to fully explain their goals beyond toppling the government, said Kost Bondarenko, director of the Ukrainian Policy Institute, a Kiev-based think tank.

"Yanukovich is making even a bigger mistake," he said, "as he is still planning to go on a three-day visit to China on Tuesday. I wouldn't be so careless in his place. There may be no place for him to return to in three days."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com