Ukrainian protesters kept up pressure on President Viktor Yanukovich yesterday (9 February) with a mass rally where opposition leaders called for an end to his "dictatorial" powers. Yanukovich met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday.
About 20,000 demonstrators rallied on Kiev's Independence Square, focal point of the protest movement, as Yanukovich searched for a new prime minister and the currency of the heavily indebted economy, the hryvnia, remained under strain.
Russia piled further pressure on him at the weekend, linking disbursement of the next tranche of its $15 billion (€11 billion) aid package for Kyiv to repayment of a hefty gas bill owed to Russian firms.
Opposition speakers addressed both Yanukovich's governing style and his decision to seek closer economic ties to Russia rather than sign a free trade pact with the European Union.
"We want the system changed in the country – we want a system in which the president serves the will of the people, a president who does not have dictatorial powers," former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk told the crowd.
Far-right nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok attacked Russia's influence over Yanukovich, declaring: "Our struggle is not only against the regime of Yanukovich, but against those who support them – against the Kremlin's imperialistic policy."
Yanukovich met Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Sochi Winter Olympics on Friday. He has since returned to Kyiv but no word has yet filtered out on what the two men discussed.
In an unusual move, the state security service placed anti-terrorism units on alert in what it called a preventive step to stop possible attacks on sensitive installations such as airports and power stations.
It said the new measures would apply to the blocking of approaches to state buildings and calls to seize installations where weapons are stored, a possible move against some radical protesters who have been in violent clashes with police.
The daily protests have complicated Yanukovich's search for a new prime minister to replace Mykola Azarov, who stepped down on 28 January. Choosing one unacceptable to the protest movement – could lead to an explosion of anger on the streets.
Yanukovich sparked the protests last November by choosing the $15 billion lifeline from Moscow for Ukraine's ailing economy rather than the EU link that millions of Ukrainians see as their country's future.
At least six people have died in occasional violent clashes between radicals and riot police.
Opposition leaders, with the backing of the Western powers, are pressing for constitutional changes that would re-balance powers – now heavily weighted towards the presidency – between the president, government and parliament.
They have already turned down offers of government posts under Yanukovich and are seeking instead to lead a technocrat government independent of him to manage the ailing economy.
Outstanding gas bills
Vitaly Klitschko, another opposition leader, accused Yanukovich of stalling in talks with them.
"He says we can change the constitution but that we have to wait months. People are not prepared to wait half a year," the boxer-turned politician told the crowd. "They want one thing – early presidential elections."
The next presidential election is due in early 2015.
With the United States and its European allies pressing for Yanukovich to change his mind, Russia has frozen further disbursements under the $15 billion aid package of credits and cheaper gas until it sees the colour of Kyiv's next government.
Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov has also pointedly reminded Kyiv of its gas debt of $2.7 billion to Moscow.
"We will fulfil what we have promised to Ukraine, but we would like the Ukrainian side to comply with the obligations that it has committed to," he said on Saturday.
Vadim Karasyov, Ukrainian political expert, sent to EURACTIV the following comment to this article.
“Apart from criticism from the oppositional leaders, Ukraine's leadership also faces pressure from the EU and the US. In the same way, the leaders of the opposition are under pressure from the Euromaidan, which doesn't have a single leader.
“More and more often, Euromaidan's goals don't coincide with views of three chief opposition politician. Significantly, the appeal of the opposition for a national strike, as well as 6 previous ones, has been ignored by the Ukrainian people. It can be said that at present the leaders of the opposition can't reach consent one no single key issue, be it a single candidate for presidential elections, who should be the prime minister, what changes to the constitution of Ukraine to be made, or releasing the administrative buildings by the protestors.
"Official EU representatives again risk repeating the mistake made in the period of Ukraine's attempt to sign the Association Agreement. At that time the EU, having ignored the financial component, was insisting that Ukraine should fulfil specific conditions by Ukraine, the majority of which was in fact fulfilled. Now the EU is once again laying down conditions for its financial assistance. This time the EU insists on carrying out economic reforms. But no specifics are provided. And in the EU eyes, Russia can again be blamed, because it has suspended allocation of the credit to Ukraine and demands the repayment of gas debts.”
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. On 28 January the parliament revoked this legislation and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned. He was replaced by Serhiy Arbuzov, a close ally of Yanukovich.
Six people have been killed and hundreds have been injured in street battles between anti-government demonstrators and police which escalated sharply after the authorities toughened their response. The police officer who died on the street on Wednesday night took the death toll to seven.
- 10 Feb.: EU ministers to discuss Ukraine as agenda item 1 of today's Council meeting