KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Monday publicly lifted his objections to a referendum that could give more powers to the restive regions engulfed in more than a year of warfare, reversing his government's previous position. Russia-backed separatists, however, dismissed Poroshenko's gesture as meaningless.
The conflict between Russia-backed rebels and government troops in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 6,000 lives. When it began, protesters in the east demanded a vote on giving their regions more autonomy. Such calls were rejected by the Ukrainian government at the time.
But Poroshenko on Monday met a parliamentary commission that is drafting amendments to the country's constitution and said in a televised meeting that if the commission decides a referendum is necessary, he would not stand in the way.
"I'm ready to launch a referendum on the issue of state governance if you decide it is necessary," he said.
Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February last year after months of protests. Several months into the fighting, however, pro-Russia rebels said they no longer wanted autonomy, but rather an independent state.
Hostilities have subsided in the region after the parties agreed in February to a cease-fire deal brokered by Western leaders in Minsk, Belarus.
Russia-backed separatists on Monday balked at the idea of a referendum as offering too little.
Senior rebel official Andrei Purgin told The Associated Press on Monday that none of their representatives were invited to sit on the constitutional commission to start with, "which already says a lot."
"Everything that Kiev does shows that they have to decide to find agreement but dictate their terms to us, which contradicts the Minsk accords," Purgin said, adding that "Poroshenko's statement does not mean anything" because there are no details of the referendum — if it happens at all.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Monday dismissed suggestions of direct talks with the rebels. "When we talk about our dialogue with the east, we mean a dialogue with legitimately elected representatives of the east of the country, not Russian gangsters and terrorists."
Yatsenyuk said he looks forward to a local election in the rebel-occupied areas that, he said, both Russia and the rebels had committed to in Minsk.
Moscow sided with the rebels, calling on Kiev to include them in deliberations on constitutional reform. Speaking at a televised news conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that reform should go ahead "only with the approval and agreement of Luhansk and Donetsk," the two biggest cities under separatist control.
Poroshenko on Monday insisted that he still opposed federalization, which Russia has advocated, but favors decentralizing power in favor of the regions. Decision-making on security, defense and foreign policy, Poroshenko said, would remain in the hands of the central government.
Poroshenko added that he still opposes making Russian a second official language. "Ukrainian has been and will be our only state language."
Purgin said Poroshenko's insistence shows that "he doesn't listen to the voice of the east: we speak Russian here."