The opposition accuses President Viktor Yanukovych’s government of trying to conduct a war of attrition.
Catherine Ashton’s meeting with Yanukovych was announced on Twitter by her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, without details. She met Tuesday evening with the opposition leader heading the massive protests against Yanukovych, which erupted over his decision to shun the 28-nation EU and turn to Moscow for a desperately needed rescue loan.
Ashton’s office has said the EU is discussing financial aid to prop up Ukraine’s struggling economy but opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told The Associated Press that no specifics were put forth in their discussions Tuesday.
Yatsenyuk charged that Yanukovych is “targeting ways how to buy time and drag us into never-ending talks and discussions.”
The Ukrainian currency, the hryvna, has fallen some 7 percent since the protests began and some Ukrainians speculate that Yanukovych sees the drop as working in his favor.
“Yanukovych thinks that the collapse of the hryvna is scaring Ukrainians and they will stop the protests. But the collapse of the economy will only speed up the exit of these talentless authorities,” said Oleg Ternovskiy, a small businessman in Kiev.
Ukraine’s reserve funds fell by some 25 percent over the past year and in December officials said the country would need at least 10 billion US dollars in the near future to pay its debts.
The perilous state of Ukraine’s economy, which relies on energy-inefficient heavy industries and gas imports from Russia, is a basic issue in the crisis.
The protests began in November after Yanukovych backed off from an expected agreement to deepen economic relations with the EU, fearing that the bloc was not offering an adequate cushion for the trade that presumably would be lost with Russia, which wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-led customs union. Yanukovych subsequently obtained a 15 billion dollar aid package from Russian President Vladimir Putin, including getting lower gas prices from Russia.
The turn toward Moscow angered those who resent the long shadow that Russia casts on Ukraine. The protests began on that note but have since morphed into demands for more human rights, less corruption, Yanukovych’s resignation and a new election.
EU officials have indicated that aid to Ukraine could be sweetened but no specifics have been offered.
The West likely would seek a resolution of Ukraine’s political crisis before offering more aid, and that has been static for the past week. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned last week, so the cabinet is operating only as a placeholder. The leader of his party’s faction in parliament, Olexander Efremov, said Wednesday he expected a new premier to be nominated next week.
Yanukovych offered the premiership to Yatsenyuk, who turned it down. Under the current system, the prime minister has relatively little power compared with the president. The opposition is seeking a return to the system under which the premier and parliament have more authority.
Russia has released 3 billion dollars of its aid to Ukraine, but Putin indicated last week that future tranches would be delayed until a new government is formed, further increasing pressure on Yanukovych to find a resolution.