The official, Victoria Nuland, who is assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, met with top protest leaders in the occupied Trades Union building here that has become a de facto headquarters for the swirling protest movement.
Even as the meeting unfolded, more than 10,000 demonstrators thronged Independence Square outside.
Ms. Nuland was in Ukraine to attend the ministerial meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in place of Secretary of State John Kerry, who canceled plans to attend after President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s refused to sign sweeping political and free trade agreements with the European Union that had been in the works for years.
Ms. Nuland’s comments at the meeting, those in attendance said, echoed her formal remarks at the ministerial conference.
In a speech to the conference that was filled with lofty rhetoric, her bottom line seemed to be this:
“Democratic norms and the rule of law must be upheld,” Ms. Nuland said.
She pointedly did not mention Mr. Yanukovich, and several participants in the meeting said it was clear that Ms. Nuland was not expressing support for him.
At the same time, participants in the meeting said they understood her message to mean protest leaders might have to accept the prospect of Mr. Yanukovich remaining in power, unless he should decide to resign voluntarily.
The possibility that he would quit is regarded as extremely unlikely, and from a practical standpoint there seem to be few legal ways to oust him, as the protesters have demanded.
Complicating the effort to address the unrest in Ukraine is the country’s severe economic crisis, which will require a financial aid package of some $17 billion or more.
That has made Ukraine particularly vulnerable to foreign influence as officials look to virtually every big power — Russia, China, Europe and the United States — for potential help.
It is not yet clear where that help will come from.
But it appears the European Union and its negotiators may have misread Mr. Yanukovich and the situation in Ukraine, diplomats and analysts said, focusing on longer-term benefits from the association with Europe rather than the kind of short-term financial assistance Moscow could offer —and that might well end up in the bank accounts of the politically connected.
“The highly corrupt political class is more interested in its own pockets than in the public interest,” said Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations. “
And it cannot give a political answer to the demonstrations.
The real issue is not deciding to go to Brussels or Moscow, but popular exasperation with this political system.”
European leaders have said they will not engage in a bidding war with the Kremlin for influence over Ukraine, a stance that many experts applauded.
“The E.U. shouldn’t feel too responsible for what’s going on in Ukraine,” said Charles Grant of the Center for European Reform.
Mr. Yanukovich was bluntly telling European and American diplomats that he needed $20 billion to seal the deal in the face of Russian opposition.
“The E.U. shouldn’t play that kind of game, if it’s about the personal enrichment of the political elite,” he said.
Ms. Nuland made clear that the United States disapproved of Mr. Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the accords with Europe.
“There should be no doubt about where the United States stands on this,” she said.
“We stand with the people of Ukraine who see their future in Europe and want to bring their country back to economic health and unity.”
Other foreign diplomats, including the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, have used the occasion of the ministerial conference to meet with opposition leaders.
But the meeting with Ms. Nuland effectively drew a new reality for the protest leaders.
They include a pro-Western businessman, Petro Poroshenko, and the leaders of the three main opposition parties in Parliament: Arseniy P. Yatseniuk of the Fatherland coalition; the champion boxer Vitali Klitschko of the Udar party; and Oleg Tyagnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party.
Also in attendance were Yuri V. Lutsenko, a former interior minister and field commander of the 2004 Orange Revolution, and Evgenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko.
Ms. Nuland was accompanied by the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey R. Pyatt.
Ms. Nuland’s strong message in support of a constitutional solution has forced the protest leaders to confront the likelihood that they will be unable to oust Mr. Yanukovich.
They could, however, still achieve another of their top goals with the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government.
Mr. Yanukovich’s decision, under heavy pressure from Russia, to reject the accords with the European Union, set off the protest movement, which gained momentum after a violent crackdown by riot police on several hundred demonstrators early Saturday morning.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Kiev last Sunday, and since then demonstrators have occupied not only the landmark Independence Square, where they have set up barriers around a wide perimeter, but also City Hall and several other public buildings, including the Trades Union building where Thursday’s meeting took place.
The protesters are a loose coalition of opposition political parties, civic organizations and student groups.
No one leader has emerged — indeed, the three party leaders are rivals — and so substantial internal negotiation is expected before there is any formal response to the position expressed by Ms. Nuland.
The civic and student groups have been particularly skeptical that the established politicians would be able to deliver the results they seek.
The prospect of a solution that leaves Mr. Yanukovich in power, at least until the next presidential election in 2015, and would allow him to run as planned for a second five-year term, is unlikely to sit well with any of the protest leaders or the tens of thousands of people on the street.
Nowhere is that antipathy toward him stronger than among supporters of Ms. Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, whose prosecution and seven-year sentence on abuse of authority charges has been widely criticized in the West as an effort by Mr. Yankovich to sideline his main political rival.
“What European leaders understand now is they are dealing with a person who cheats them and who lies,” Evgenia Tymoshenko said in an interview on Thursday.
“There can be no negotiation with a person who cheats and lies.”
Protest leaders, however, may not have a choice.
While it is possible to dissolve the government, Western officials say they see no legal means, within the existing Ukrainian Constitution, to remove Mr. Yanukovich from office.
In her remarks, Ms. Nuland did not rule out the calls by some Ukrainian officials, including the speaker of Parliament, Volodymyr Rybak, for so-called round-table talks —the same phrase for negotiations that helped resolve the Orange Revolution nine years ago.
Source: The New York Times