Crunch day in Ukraine after leader offers concession
Ukrainian lawmakers meet on Tuesday to debate ways of ending a deadly two-month crisis after President Viktor Yanukovych gave in to a key opposition demand to abolish draconian anti-protest laws.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will also on Tuesday fly to Brussels for a summit with EU leaders dominated by the tensions shaking Ukraine in its worst political standoff since independence in 1991.
Opposition leaders meanwhile called for a new mass rally in Independence Square — the sprawling camp in freezing Kiev that has been the epicentre of a protest movement that started as a pro-EU campaign.
“There was a political decision to abolish the January 16 laws that have caused so much discussion,” the presidency said in a statement late on Monday after talks between Yanukovych and the opposition.
The presidency said Yanukovych was also willing to release scores of protesters jailed during the clashes but only on condition that occupied buildings are vacated and barricades taken down.
Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, meanwhile turned down the offer of the post of prime minister put forward by Yanukovych in earlier negotiations, the presidency said.
Former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, leader of the UDAR (Punch) party, had already dismissed the prospect of being deputy prime minister as “a poisonous offer” aimed at dividing the opposition.
Underlining international concern over Ukraine, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due to fly to Kiev after the EU-Russia summit in a flurry of diplomacy to end the standoff.
An extraordinary session of parliament in Kiev is set to address a list of opposition demands, including constitutional reforms to take away some of Yanukovych’s sweeping powers and bolster the government’s role.
The session is seen as a make-or-break moment and there have been reports that the government is mulling hawkish action including emergency rule if talks fail.
But US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych on Monday and warned him that “declaring a state of emergency or enacting other harsh security measures would further inflame the situation and close the space for a peaceful resolution.”
The escalating situation has put the pressure for a speedy resolution after three protesters were killed during clashes last week in Kiev, where hundreds of militants in motorcycle helmets and wielding baseball bats now roam the streets.
Members of a radical splinter group of the protest overran the justice ministry building on Sunday but vacated it on Monday after an appeal from opposition leaders, although they were still blockading it.
One key sticking point in the negotiations between the opposition and Yanukovych has been the president’s own political future.
The opposition says it wants him out before the end of his term next year and militants are pushing to oust him as soon as possible.
The protests began in November as a drive for EU integration after Yanukovych under Russian pressure ditched a key deal with the bloc that had been years in the making.
They have since snowballed into a wider movement against his rule and have spread far beyond Kiev to outlying regions in a country twice the size of Germany.
Protesters now occupy regional government headquarters in all but one region in the west of the country, with local opposition lawmakers and militants forming new “People’s Parliaments” to run their regions.
Protesters now occupy or are blockading a total of 10 of the 25 regional centres.
Most worryingly for Yanukovych, the protests have spread into his heartland in majority Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
Security forces have fought back in the east, using force to disperse protests in the cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Cherkasy and Sumy and arresting dozens of protesters.
Russia has slammed the protesters as extremists, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemning them as “fascistic youth” and warning against outside interference.
But the West has voiced concern about police violence, and says Ukrainians’ right to protest and have a say in their country’s foreign policy should be defended.
Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister and figurehead for the opposition movement, said parliament, which is dominated by Yanukovych’s Regions Party, should vote to bring down the government in a vote of confidence also planned for Tuesday.
The economy meanwhile has suffered, with analysts saying that a hoped-for recovery from more than a year of recession is under threat and that the currency could collapse.
A key concern is also what will happen to a $15 billion (11-billion-euro) bailout agreed by Russia with Yanukovych if there is a radical political overhaul in Kiev.
Dmytro Sologub, an economist at Raiffeisen Bank Aval, told AFP: “People are quite uncertain on what will come next.”