Ukraine’s political crisis deepened over the weekend as President Viktor Yanukovych’s offer to share power with the opposition failed to end anti-government unrest, raising the stakes for a special parliament session tomorrow.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok on Jan. 25 urged demonstrators to keep pushing for Yanukovych’s resignation and snap elections after the president offered to hand over top cabinet jobs. Lawmakers will interrupt their winter break tomorrow to vote on a no-confidence motion and a bid to repeal anti-protest laws passed this month.
The country of 45 million, a key route for Russian energy toward Europe, is enduring the first deadly political crisis in its 22 years of independence. After struggling to tame demonstrations that claimed their first lives last week as anti-protest laws triggered riots, Yanukovych offered his biggest concessions yet on Jan. 25. Clashes in Kiev resumed that night, while attempts to seize regional government offices widened.
“There seems to be no room left for a compromise -- for the opposition this is a zero sum situation and Yanukovych has to go,” Lilit Gevorgyan, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, said yesterday by e-mail from London. “This only increases the risk of large-scale violence, and the pressure on the president to leave his office.”
Yanukovych said he’s ready to fire his loyalists and give the premiership to Yatsenyuk and a deputy prime minister position to Klitschko. While Yatsenyuk said the opposition is ready to form a government that would free jailed ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko and guide the country toward better ties with western Europe, he fell short of endorsing Yanukovych’s offer.
“I don’t think there can be any offers before Yanukovych is ready to resign,” Irina, 47, a teacher from Kiev, said Jan. 25 at a demonstration, declining to give her last name for fear of reprisal. “I can’t imagine anything else. I can’t imagine any kind of bargaining.”
Klitschko and Tyahnybok have urged activists to continue protests until all their demands are met. Tomorrow’s extraordinary parliament session will be crucial in deciding the fate of the country, according to Yatsenyuk.
The parliamentary debate “is an opportunity for the political leadership in Ukraine to show that they are serious with their offers to the opposition,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said yesterday in an e-mailed statement, in which he urged a political solution to the crisis.
The two sides will start talks on changing the constitution and repealing anti-protest laws that ignited violence last week, according to a statement from Andriy Portnov, Yanukovych’s deputy chief of staff, on the president’s website.
After both sides called for foreign mediation to help find a resolution to the crisis, opposition leaders said they met Yanukovych Jan. 25 to stop him from initiating a state of emergency. Officials including Prime Minister Mykola Azarov have denied such plans in recent days.
Rinat Akhmetov, an ally of the president and Ukraine’s richest person with a $12.3 billion fortune according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, urged a peaceful resolution in a Jan. 25 statement, saying any force is unacceptable. Billionaire former Economy Minister Petro Poroshenko endorsed further protests that night from Independence Square’s stage.
Riots flared up again the previous evening, prompting Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko to say that peaceful efforts to end the unrest were useless. Protesters, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting fireworks, seized an exhibition hall yesterday, allowing about 200 Interior Ministry troops stationed there to leave at 4 a.m., TV5 said.
Shortly after midnight today, protesters broke into the Justice Ministry building several hundred meters from Independence Square, or Maidan, ignoring calls for restraint from Klitschko, who attempted to hold back the attackers, Espreso TV reported.
Justice Minister Olena Lukash that she’ll urge the National Security and Defense Council to impose a state of emergency unless the ministry is freed.
The Interior Ministry started a criminal investigation into efforts to block the Justice Ministry’s building, according to a website statement today.
To declare a state of emergency in Ukraine, the president must issue a decree on the basis of a proposal made by the National Security and Defense Council or in some cases by the government. The president also has to address the public with a warning that such a move is possible.
Parliament will have to approve the presidential decree within two days.
The opposition canceled a mass rally in the capital, Kiev, yesterday to mourn activists who died last week amid clashes with police. Seeking shelter from temperatures of as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit), demonstrators seized the buildings of the Agriculture Ministry and the Energy Ministry last week.
The unrest has spread beyond Kiev. Protesters are occupying offices of governors picked by Yanukovych in more than a third of the nation’s 25 regions, while police have expelled demonstrators from some.
The protests escalated last week as the first deaths were registered. Police are investigating the Jan. 22 discovery of two bodies with gunshot wounds, while 116 people have been detained on suspicion of participation in riots.
The opposition says six people have died and a thousand people have been injured. More than 300 policemen have sought medical help, according to the Interior Ministry.
A delegation of European Union officials in Ukraine said the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated, pointing to arrests of wounded people in front of clinics and reports of torture and disappearances, according to a statement on the mission’s Facebook Inc. page today.
Bringing perpetrators of these crimes to justice and stopping the violations will help achieve an “indispensable prerequisite for confidence between government and society,” the delegation said. Officials also asked the opposition to “clearly dissociate itself” from those who use violence.
EU officials, who’ve said they may reassess their relations with Ukraine after the violence, are seeking to broker a peace deal in Kiev. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule met Yanukovych and the opposition Jan. 24, while Catherine Ashton, the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, is due in Kiev Jan. 30-31.
For the time being, the opposition isn’t backing down.
“We will not backtrack!” Klitschko said Jan. 25. “We are keeping our positions. There are no extremists here. We are peaceful people, who are fighting for their rights and demands. We are not listening to any provocations.”
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