President of Ukraine wavers in the face of widespread protest

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KIEV, Ukraine -- President Viktor Yanukovich appeared to give ground Monday in the face of huge demonstrations that threatened to hobble his government, seeking to reopen talks with the European Union about forging a closer economic relationship with the rest of Europe.

As protesters declared a general strike and blocked access to the government's headquarters in central Kiev, Mr. Yanukovich spoke by phone with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso to ask whether Ukraine could send a delegation to discuss a previously scuttled free trade agreement, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.

Mr. Barroso agreed, the news agency said, but stressed that the EU would not renegotiate the agreement.

Ukraine's government has been shaken in recent days by the country's most serious political crisis since the Orange Revolution of 2005. There has been an outpouring of opposition to Mr. Yanukovich's decision not to sign the EU agreement, which would tighten Ukraine's economic ties with Western Europe.

Russia, Ukraine's eastern neighbor and largest energy supplier, has furiously lobbied against the accord, using both the carrot of potential energy savings and the stick of a halt in Ukrainian imports.

Once known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has long been torn between a desire to integrate with Western Europe and a need to remain economically entwined with Russia.

On Monday, hundreds of opposition activists surrounded the Council of Ministers building, the center of Ukraine's government in central Kiev, parking several lines of cars in strategic spots around it and blocking entries by mobilizing lines of people waving blue-and-yellow national flags. A huge European Union flag was affixed to the back metal gates of the building.

Speaking to cheering supporters outside the building, opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko declared that the government headquarters had been effectively shut down.

"I am happy to announce that the Council of Ministers was the first organization that joined the general strike we declared," announced Mr. Lutsenko.

Government spokesman Vitaly Lukyanenko told Interfax-Ukraine that government workers blocked from their offices were working from their homes.

Government buildings were also reported to be surrounded by protesters in western Ukraine, which has been the center of support for closer ties with Europe. Mr. Yanukovich retains substantial support in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, where lawmakers called on him to declare a state of emergency in the country.

Monday's demonstrations were peaceful, in contrast to the day before, when protests outside the presidential headquarters building ended in several hours of battles between protesters and police.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is presumed to have pressured Mr. Yanukovich to turn down the EU, condemned Sunday's violence, calling it "more like a pogrom than a revolution," according to the RIA Novosti news agency.


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