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US, Europe working on new finance aid for Ukraine

Protesters seek to weaken role of president

Riot police stood together facing a barricade of antigovernment protesters in Kiev.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Riot police stood together facing a barricade of antigovernment protesters in Kiev.

BERLIN — Working to salvage a failed effort to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, and to counter Russian pressure, the United States and Europe are pushing to defuse the crisis there, trying to assemble a new financial package intended to ease the way for formation of a new government, US and European officials say.

The diplomatic push involves regular contact with government and opposition leaders in Ukraine, which has been embroiled in months of turmoil since its president, Victor F. Yanukovych, rejected an association agreement with Europe, opening the way to a $15 billion loan package from Moscow.

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If that initial snub left the European Union looking outmaneuvered, Yanukovych now appears more embattled.

Last week, the president was forced to make concessions to his opponents in the face of unrelenting street protests, including sacrificing his pro-Moscow prime minister, who resigned.

Leaders of the antigovernment protests in Kiev said they will seek constitutional changes that will weaken the president’s powers, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The changes are expected to be discussed in a Tuesday session of Parliament. Protesters are refusing to leave their encampment in downtown Kiev or vacate buildings they occupy, but radicals who clashed violently with police last month are maintaining an informal truce.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Monday said constitutional change would “cancel the dictatorial powers of the president and transfer the right of governing the country to the Ukrainian people.”

‘They want to come closer to the European Union . . . we are ready to support that.’

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Justice Minister Olena Lukash said last week that officials were preparing measures for constitutional change, but did not give details.

With the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi on Friday, European and US officials say they may have a fresh window of opportunity and some breathing space through the end of February to play a defining role in Ukraine while President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is engaged in ensuring the success of an event that will draw global attention.

The Russian president’s suspension of his aid package to Ukraine on Wednesday — a signal of his displeasure at Yanukovych’s talks with his opponents — may also provide a chance for the United States and Europeans to take up an economic lever that Ukraine desperately needs as it faces default on its debts.

On Monday, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said the union was trying to help Ukraine, but denied there was any direct competition with Russia.

“We are not going to a bidding competition of who pays more for a signature from Ukraine because we believe that this is the path that most Ukrainians prefer,” Barroso said, speaking in Brussels. “They want to come closer to the European Union and certainly we are ready to support that.”

Speaking in Berlin and on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, senior US and European officials said they would try to assemble a new financial package intended to help a new government, though one led by an opposition leader or a technocrat.

The diplomatic effort appears aimed to help the Ukrainian leader and his opponents reach an agreement in their negotiations that would give Ukraine a government of experts, possibly led by an opposition leader, Yatsenyuk, as well as a leadership that would be acceptable to protesters who have been on the streets for more than two months.

At the same time, the negotiations appear intended to allow Yanukovych to serve out his term, which ends in spring next year, albeit with reduced constitutional powers.

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