KIEV, Ukraine — In his first meeting with opposition leaders since the outbreak of a sustained civil uprising here, President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine had a succinct message Friday for the tens of thousands of protesters calling for changes at the highest levels of government. He urged them to stop protesting.
“I appeal to our citizens,” Yanukovych said at the end of a more than two-hour meeting that included protest organizers, religious leaders, and all three former presidents of Ukraine. “Calm down and stop the confrontation. Confrontation has never led to anything good.”
The round-table talks occurred as Yanukovych, whose popularity has plummeted since his abrupt decision last month to back away from signing political and free trade accords with Europe, is under intensifying pressure to resolve the crisis.
It is coming not only from officials in the West and in Russia, who have been in a tug of war for influence over Ukraine’s future, but also from some of Ukraine’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen — the oligarchs —who seem increasingly jarred by the instability and uncertainty in the country, and worried about the quickly deteriorating economy.
The country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, a multibillionaire widely viewed as an ally of Yanukovych’s, issued a statement Friday expressing support for demonstrators and urging that the government offer a clearer picture of its intentions. It was a highly unusual commentary on public affairs by a man who generally prefers to operate privately.
Since backing away from the accords with Europe, Yanukovych has been in negotiations with Moscow over desperately needed economic aid, and he is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. At the round-table meeting, one of the country’s senior religious leaders, Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, warned Yanukovych not to use force against protesters or to join Putin’s fledgling customs union of post-Soviet states.
“Use of force only calls for more force,” Filaret said, sitting directly across the table from Yanukovych, who at times alternatively seemed pained and bored throughout the meeting. “And what does that mean? A civil war. Do we want a civil war? None of us wants a civil war.”
“It is impossible to disperse the square by force,” Filaret said. “It will gather again. And if you join the customs union, even more people will come out.”