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08/12/2016

Political suspense grows in Ukraine as protesters radicalise

Europe's East

Political suspense grows in Ukraine as protesters radicalise

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich agreed to talks with opposition leaders to the repeal of some anti-protest laws and to discuss the fate of the current government at a crunch session of parliament today (28 January), called to end two months of unrest against his rule. The EU and the United States warned the authorities against introducing a state of emergency.

But former Economy Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, now a leader of the opposition, refused his offer of the prime minister's job, setting the scene for a tough political battle in parliament over opposition demands for concessions, including an amnesty for detained protesters.

There was no mention of any declaration of a state of emergency – something that Yanukovich's cabinet ministers threatened to call for on Monday to re-establish control over the security situation in the country, where protesters are seizing public buildings.

Talk of a state of emergency being declared in the former Soviet republic of 46 million made the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, hastily push forward a visit to Kyiv to Tuesday. Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle is already in Kyiv.

US Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich on Monday to urge the government not to declare a state of emergency and to work with the opposition to bring a peaceful end to the unrest.

"[Biden] underscored that the US condemns the use of violence by any side, and warned 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 White House said.

After a four-hour meeting, Yanukovich's justice minister, who was at the talks with opposition figures, said they agreed to scrap parts of an anti-protest law 10 days ago that triggered violent protests from activists.

The minister, Olena Lukash, was quoted on the presidential website as saying the question of the government's "responsibility" would be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, suggesting there could be a vote of no-confidence in Mykola Azarov's government as a concession to the opposition.

But she said Yatsenyuk, one of a "troika" of opposition leaders, had formally refused to accept the prime minister's post offered to him by Yanukovich over the weekend.

Protesters from a fringe group called “Common cause” have ended their occupation of the justice ministry after Lukash threatened to call a state of emergency.

Yanukovich triggered the upheaval in the sprawling country in November when he abruptly abandoned plans to sign association and free trade deals with the European Union. He opted instead to tighten economic ties with former Soviet master Russia, angering millions who dream of a European future.

The protest movement has since turned into a mass demonstration, punctuated by clashes with police, against perceived misrule and corruption under Yanukovich's leadership.

Several hundred people camp round-the-clock on Kiev's Independence Square and along an adjoining thoroughfare, while more radical protesters confront police lines at Dynamo football stadium some distance away.

Opposition leaders, who include boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko and nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok, have been pressing Yanukovich to repeal fully the anti-protest laws, dismiss the Azarov government and call early elections.

Yatsenyuk's refusal to accept the position of prime minister confirmed that the opposition regarded Yanukovich's offer as a trap that could divide them and undermine their credibility before the thousands of protesters on Kiev's streets.

More radical demands

According to Deutsche Welle, opposition leaders are unlikely to accept that offer because the majority of demonstrators would not support it. That became clear during an appearance by the heads of the protest movement at Independence Square in Kyiv. Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the influential Batkivshchyna party faced boos from the crowd when he said the opposition was prepared to take on responsibility.

Instead of power-sharing, the protestors call for early parliamentary and presidential elections.

“A month ago the resignation of Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko might have been enough. A few weeks ago the resignation of the government might have been enough. Now the people want Yanukovych to step down”, Klitchko said in an interview for DW.

Another battle lies ahead over protesters detained during the unrest. The Yanukovich side said these would be pardoned, but only once protesters had ended their occupation of public buildings and blockade of roads.

Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and its allies hold a majority in the Ukrainian parliament and pressure from the president and his aides behind the scenes can easily swing a vote the way he wants it to go.

But given the complexity of protesters' grievances and the anger on the streets, it seemed unlikely a clear-cut solution would emerge on Tuesday.

Six people have been killed in the unprecedented violence in Kiev that has set Russia and the West at loggerheads over the fate of the former Soviet republic.

The protesters left the premises after several hours, but said they would return if there was no progress in parliament on Tuesday.

Opposition rally call

The Batkivshchyna, or "Fatherland," party of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and now headed by Yatsenyuk, called on its supporters to rally in Independence Square on Tuesday in solidarity with opposition deputies in parliament.

"Come at 12 o'clock and support the deputies who are ready to take on themselves the responsibility for getting rid of these dictatorial laws," a statement said.

The occupation of the Justice Ministry building was the third such action in four days. Protesters occupied the Agriculture Ministry on Friday and only agreed to leave the Energy Ministry, which they entered on Saturday after the minister warned their action could disrupt energy supplies in the country.

Lukash said in a video statement, "If the Justice Ministry building is not vacated immediately, I will be forced to appeal … to the Council for National Security and Defence with a demand that introduction of a state of emergency in the country be discussed."

A state of emergency would limit movements of people and vehicles, ban rallies, marches and strikes, suspend the activity of political parties and introduce a curfew.

The EU's chief Ashton, in a statement, said she was alarmed by the reports of a possible state of emergency being declared, which she said would "trigger a forward downward spiral for Ukraine".

Calling for the complete repeal of the anti-protest laws which Western governments say are undemocratic, she said she would visit Kiev on Tuesday [see positions].

The United States has warned Yanukovich that failure to ease the standoff could have "consequences" for its relationship with Ukraine. Germany, France and other Western governments have also urged him to talk to the opposition.

Russia has stepped up its warnings against international interference in Ukraine, telling European Union officials to prevent outside meddling and cautioning the United States against inflammatory statements. Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to visit Brussels today for what promises to be a tense EU-Russia summit [more]. 

Positions

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has issued yesterday the following statement: "I am deeply concerned by the situation in Ukraine.

“The violence needs to stop and both sides need to reduce the tensions. I am alarmed by reports that the government is planning to declare a state of emergency. This would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine which would benefit no-one. I also urge the leaders of the opposition to dissociate themselves from those who resort to violence.

“The only solution to the crisis is a political one. What is urgently needed is a genuine dialogue to build a new consensus on the way forward. I hope that the Ukrainian parliament will set a clear path during tomorrow’s session towards a political solution. This must include revoking the package of laws passed on 16 January.

“I and the EU will remain fully engaged in seeking a way out of the crisis. Following today's visit by my colleague Štefan Füle I will travel to Kyiv tomorrow evening."

Background

The Ukrainian government announced on 21 November that it had decided to stop its preparations to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU. 

Following the news that Yanukovich failed to sign the AA at the Vilnius summit on 28-29 November, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets demanding his resignation [read more]. The protests, called EuroMaidan, have lasted ever since.

On 16 January supporters of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich hastily pushed through in Parliament new laws, in an attempt to curb anti-government protests. The Commission called these laws “shocking” and “disrespectful to democracy” [read more].

The new legislation, which ran to more than 100 pages and a summary of which in English was obtained by EurActiv, appeared directed mainly at preparing the ground for action to end the street protests.

Further Reading