Kiev - Ukraine's ruling party demanded Monday a sweeping cabinet reshuffle in a sign the leadership was seeking to placate the opposition in a bitter standoff over a rejected EU pact.
President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to scrap key agreements with the EU last month and police violence against protesters sparked the largest demonstrations in the ex-Soviet country since the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution.
The announcement by Yanukovych's party appears to be a move to appease the opposition after the first direct talks between the president and three opposition leaders failed on Friday to defuse Ukraine's deepest crisis in a decade.
Yanukovych had earlier offered a number of concessions, sacking senior officials over police violence and announcing an amnesty for arrested protesters, in a bid to ease tensions.
But the pro-EU opposition has dismissed the moves as half-measures, and leaders are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, as well as early presidential and parliamentary elections.
“We have put forward a demand before Azarov to reformat the government by 90 percent,” Anna German, a lawmaker with Yanukovych's Regions Party, said after talks with Azarov.
“Azarov said that he will today let the position of the faction be known to the president and conclusions will certainly be made,” she told reporters after the closed-door meeting attended by the entire cabinet.
German, a former Yanukovych aide, said the resignation of Azarov was not discussed.
The opposition appeared implacable, however.
“We believe that Viktor Yanukovych has made no step toward the resignation of the government and we are awaiting the president's decision regarding this cabinet,” said protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The details and timing of any reshuffle have yet to be hammered out, the president's parliamentary representative Yuriy Miroshnychenko said.
“An emotional conversation based on principals was held. We have to take the decisive steps necessary to solve the problems,” he told reporters.
Ukraine's richest man Rinat Akhmetov in a rare statement Friday called for talks and expressed sympathy with the protest movement.
“It depends on the oligarchs and particularly on Akhmetov, who controls a large group of lawmakers in the Regions Party's parliamentary faction, whether it will be possible to influence Yanukovych so that he removes Azarov,” said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
On Sunday nearly 300,000 protesters flooded central Kiev despite freezing temperatures to demand the government sign the EU pact.
The authorities staged a counter rally nearby, bussing in thousands from the provinces.
The protest movement, now in its fourth week, is planning another major rally on Tuesday when Yanukovych and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to oversee the signing of energy, space, investment and other agreements.
The government has insisted no deal that would require Ukraine to become a member in the Moscow-led Customs Union will be signed.
A Kremlin aide, Andrei Belousov, told reporters on Monday that Russia may give Ukraine a much-needed loan without providing any specifics.
Tens of thousands have taken to the streets over the past three weeks, putting intense pressure on Yanukovych to choose between Brussels and Moscow.
Analysts say either choice will further divide the politically volatile country, which is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, pro-EU west and a Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning east. “On December 17, Viktor Yanukovych is flying to Moscow where he is planning to sign an agreement on selling Ukraine into the Customs Union in exchange for salvaging his own political fate,” opposition lawmaker Borys Tarasyuk said on Sunday.
“I have the feeling Yanukovych does not hear the people and does not hear the European Union and all the attention the European Union pays us,” said Bogdan Baran, a 32-year-old builder from the western city of Lviv, as he drank coffee by camp fire in the protesters' tent city in central Kiev.
Yanukovych, whose government has sought up to $20 billion in foreign assistance to prop up the struggling economy, has assured the demonstrators that he eventually planned to sign the Association Agreement and sent a delegation to Brussels.
But the bloc abruptly suspended the talks on Sunday, saying Ukraine's leadership was being disingenuous.
EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday reiterated the bloc's willingness to strike a deal, but said the ball was in Kiev's court.
“If there's a clear message from Kiev we're ready to sign tomorrow,” said Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.