Ukraine's prime minister on Friday told leaders in the country's restive east that he is committed to allowing regions to have more powers, but left it unclear how his ideas differ from the demands of protesters now occupying government buildings or from Russia's advocacy of federalization.
The officials who met Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Donetsk did not include representatives of the protesters. The officials asked Yatsenyuk to allow referenda on autonomy for their regions, but not on secession.
''There are no separatists among us,'' said Gennady Kernes, mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, where protesters had occupied a government building earlier in the week.
Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland was the support base for Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after months of protests. Last month, the Crimea region voted to secede and was annexed by Russia.
Russia ratcheted up the pressure on Ukraine on Thursday when President Vladimir Putin warned European leaders of a risk to the gas supplies going through Ukraine. He has threatened that Russia could shut off shipments to Ukraine if it fails to pay its mammoth debts.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies on Friday that Russia has not heard from the countries to which Putin sent a letter.
Protesters in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk are occupying government buildings and calling for referenda on regional autonomy that could prefigure seeking annexation by Russia.
Before leaving Donetsk for another eastern city, Yatsenyuk told reporters that he favors a peaceful solution to the stand-off. However, he left the door open to storming the buildings occupied by armed men, though a two-day deadline announced earlier this week has passed.
Yatsenyuk said the grievances of eastern Ukraine would be appeased by the upcoming constitutional reform that will ''satisfy people who want to see more powers given to regions.'' He mentioned abolishing Kiev-controlled local administration as one of the steps to decentralize the country.
The protesters in Donetsk, who have held the regional administration building since Sunday, initially called for a referendum on secession but later reduced the demand to one on autonomy, with the possibility of holding another later on whether the region would remain part of Ukraine or seek to become an autonomous region within Russia.
The eastern parts of Ukraine have a high proportion of Russian-speakers and many of them fear that the acting government that took over when Yanukovych fled