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Ukraine leader pledges rights to protesters

Pro-Russia demonstrators wary of promise

An activist guarded a barricade during a rally after a government building was seized in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

An activist guarded a barricade during a rally after a government building was seized in Donetsk, Ukraine.

DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s acting prime minister on Friday abandoned threats to forcibly evict pro-Russian demonstrators from government buildings and assured political and business leaders in the country’s rebellious east that they would get more power to run their own affairs.

But the pledge by Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, the head of a new central government in Kiev installed after the Feb. 21 flight of President Viktor Yanukovych, drew a dismissive response from protesters as a deadline set by the government to relinquish the occupied regional administration building here passed with no sign of an end to a volatile standoff, which began Sunday when protesters seized the building and declared the establishment of a People’s Republic of Donetsk.

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In a television statement broadcast to a small and mostly elderly crowd outside the occupied building, Ekaterina Gubareva, the newly appointed “foreign minister” of the universally unrecognized Donetsk republic, denounced Yatsenyuk’s government as a “junta” and repeated demands for a referendum to let local residents decide whether they want to secede and join Russia.

Oleg Tsarov, a Russian-speaking candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, and one of a handful of mainstream politicians who support the unruly Donetsk protesters, said at a news conference that he had information of an imminent “frontal assault” by government forces on the occupied building. He declined to specify how he knew this, but said Yatsenyuk’s disavowal of a forceful solution during his visit to Donetsk “only strengthened” his view that an attack is likely.

The United States and its allies worry that Russia might use the unrest in Donetsk and other eastern cities — which the Ukrainian authorities believe has been instigated and financed by Moscow — as pretext for a military intervention to “protect” Russian-speaking residents.

Russia has repeatedly denied any plans for an invasion, and many analysts believe its goal is to keep the shaky new Ukrainian government off balance and to make sure it shuns any security partnership with the West. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, on Friday demanded guarantees of Ukraine’s neutrality, a position that would close the door to Ukraine’s cooperating with NATO or trying to join it.

In a sign of how closely the Donetsk protesters are acting in concert with Russian interests, anti-NATO chants have become a regular element of their round-the-clock rallies, superseding earlier chants against the “fascists” who they claim grabbed power in Kiev from Yanukovych.

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Yatsenyuk, speaking in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, a language rarely used in Donetsk, promised that his government would give regions more power to manage their own finances, choose their own leaders, and govern their own affairs. Regional governors are currently appointed by the president in Kiev.

“Our task is to balance power between the center” and the regions, he said.

At a meeting Friday with the prime minister, Ukraine’s richest man, Donetsk businessman Rinat Akhmetov, and other regional power-brokers, Taruta stressed that economic growth, not force, offered the only way to solve the crisis.

“The biggest problem is poverty, and we must fight against it with all our means,” he said.

Opinion polls show that most residents of the east have little interest in independence or secession but are deeply concerned by declining living standards.

The mayor of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, a former ally of Yanukovych’s, presented a long list of complaints to the government leaders, pointing to rising fuel prices and other issues he said had stirred anger.

Addressing another source of friction with Moscow, Ukraine’s acting energy minister suggested Friday he would not pay the elevated prices for natural gas that Russia has been demanding in recent weeks, and would contest the basis for the price increase instead.

The minister, Yuri Prodan, told Parliament that he intended to challenge in an arbitration court in Stockholm a 2009 contract with Gazprom and its subsequent amendments. It is under this contract that Gazprom is claiming an about 80 percent increase in the price of gas, starting this month.

The legal prospects for such a suit are unclear, energy analysts say, and Ukraine’s options for wiggling free of the deal are limited in spite of diplomatic backing from the United States and European Union countries.

Russian officials point out that Prodan helped negotiate the contract in 2009, when he served as energy minister under Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, and is hardly in a position to dispute its validity.

The Ukrainian finance minister, Oleksandr Shlapak, told reporters in Washington his country did not intend to use the first installment of an International Monetary Fund loan to pay Russia. Ukraine has few resources on its own to make such payments.

Ukraine expects to receive $7 billion this year from the IMF and has a preliminary accord with the lending institution to receive as much as $18 billion in loans over two years, while aid from the European Union, the United States and other donors will raise the total package to $27 billion.

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