Protests turn up the heat on Ukraine’s Yanukovich

Ukraine protest_0.jpg

Thousands of supporters of Ukraine's re-energised opposition movement rallied outside parliament yesterday (2 April) to press for early mayoral elections in Kiev, the biggest such action against President Viktor Yanukovich this year.

A crowd led by the three main opposition leaders marched from the centre of the capital to parliament, holding aloft banners calling for the release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko and denouncing Yanukovich's policies.

The protesters' direct target was Olexander Popov, appointed by Yanukovich as head of Kiev city's administration and now effectively the capital's mayor.

The ruling Party of the Regions is pushing for the Kiev mayoral election to be delayed for two years until after the 2015 presidential election, in which Yanukovich is expected to run for a second term.

The last mayor, who left office in mid-2012, was effectively replaced by Popov and opposition leaders are pushing for a vote in early June.

Banners read "Popov as mayor means Kiev dies" and "Do not let Yanukovich steal elections from the people of Kiev" in a show of strength by the opposition which performed well in an October parliamentary election.

The demonstration come as Ukraine's leaders hesitate between forging closer ties with the European Union or aligning themselves more closely with its former Soviet master Russia.

The European Union warned Yanukovich in February that a free trade deal could be jeopardised if Ukraine did not show progress towards political reform by May.

For the EU, the deal is conditional on improved human rights and ending the practice of "selective justice" – meaning the jailing of political opponents such as former prime minister Tymoshenko, Yanukovich's arch rival who is serving a seven-year jail sentence for abuse of office.

Recalling the revolution

The united opposition is led by former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.

The group says that Yanukovich, haunted by the 2004 "Orange revolution" protests in Kiev which unravelled his first presidential bid, wants to keep Popov in control of the capital until after the 2015 presidential election.

"They [the Yanukovich camp] don't want an election now because they will lose," Tyahnybok, head of the Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party, told the crowd after he and other opposition leaders lobbied in parliament for a date to be fixed for the mayoral ballot.

"This is not just about the Kiev mayoral election. If they put off this election, what do you think will happen to the presidential one? The same," Yatsenyuk added.

Opposition parties have shown their teeth by paralysing parliamentary proceedings, often for weeks on end, by blockading the speaker's rostrum.

One of their central demands is the release from jail of Tymoshenko and her allies. Her continued imprisonment could now threaten free trade and political agreements with the EU which would otherwise anchor the former Soviet republic in the Western camp.

Lutsenko’s appeal begins

But Yanukovich, despite an oft-stated commitment to taking Ukraine into mainstream Europe, has so far refused to bow to pressure from the opposition or from Western governments, to intervene in the case of Tymoshenko, his fiercest rival.

Although Ukraine is keen to cut its dependency on ties with Russia, particularly in the sphere of gas supplies, Kiev has yet to make a clear choice between a closer relationship with the EU or Moscow.

There has been strong speculation that one of Tymoshenko's jailed allies, former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko who is serving a four-year sentence for embezzlement and abuse of office, might receive more lenient treatment.

A Kiev court on Tuesday began hearing Lutsenko's appeal against his conviction and is expected to hand down a ruling soon.

When proceedings opened, Lutsenko asked the court to be allowed out of the glass-fronted box in which he was held, saying: "I'm not a maniac. I haven't killed 10 people. If I am a maniac then I am a political one since I do not like your leader." The court refused his request. 

At its recent EU-Ukraine summit on 25 February, Council President Herman Van Rompuy reiterated the three areas where the EU wants to see progress before signing an Association Agreement with Kyiv.

The three conditions are to address the problem of "selective justice" - a reference to the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko - dealing with the democratic shortcomings stemming from the October national elections, and advancing judiciary reforms.

Van Rompuy made it plain that the EU wanted to see progress “at the latest May this year”.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said the outstanding issues could be solved in time for the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in November, during the Lithuanian presidency of the EU.

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