President’s ‘sick leave’ fuels anxiety over Ukraine

Opposition says Yanukovich avoiding key decisions with ‘political illness’

An anti-government protester stands at a barricade as a woman looks on near Independence Square in Kiev yesterday.  Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

An anti-government protester stands at a barricade as a woman looks on near Independence Square in Kiev yesterday. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Fri, Jan 31, 2014, 01:00

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leaders have accused each other of dragging the country towards disaster, as the embattled leader abruptly went on sick leave after pushing through a controversial law.

Just hours after aides said he had an “acute respiratory illness and high temperature” yesterday, Mr Yanukovich’s office released a statement in which he expressed “great anxiety and worry for the life and health of many people who have been dragged into conflict by irresponsible leaders”.

He denounced opposition chiefs for “thinking more about their ratings” than the welfare of protesters camped out in Kiev and other cities who are braving temperatures of -20 degrees.

Several people were killed in an outbreak of fierce fighting between demonstrators and riot police in Ukraine’s capital last week, and hundreds were injured.

‘No future’
“The authorities have fulfilled all their obligations . . . However, the opposition continues to whip up the situation,” Mr Yanukovich (63) said. “I am convinced we need to understand that there is no future for the state and the people if the political interests of certain groups are given precedence over the very existence of Ukraine.”

Protesters, who first rallied in late November when Mr Yanukovich rejected a historic EU pact and sought to repair ties with Russia, say they will not leave the streets until he is ousted. The president seemed to be in robust health late on Wednesday evening when he made a sudden appearance at a tense emergency session of parliament, amid rumours of a split in his ruling Regions Party over a Bill to grant an amnesty to detained protesters.

Opposition politicians said dozens of Regions Party representatives were poised to support a Bill that would have freed all detainees without any preconditions.

But after Mr Yanukovich spoke to his party in a back room, the deputies returned to the chamber and passed a different Bill, which offers an amnesty only if protesters end their occupation of official buildings in Kiev and around the country within 15 days.

Opposition leaders call it the “hostage law” – because they believe detainees will only be freed once anti-government protests end – and accuse the president of using “blackmail and intimidation” to force Regions Party members to ram it through.

Former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who heads the liberal Udar (Punch) party, said protests would continue and that “instead of lowering the temperature in society, this is going to raise it”.

“The president’s illness is actually a political illness. It’s his withdrawal from trying to resolve the political crisis,” Udar said in a statement, noting that Mr Yanukovich had not yet signed into force this week’s revocation of widely hated anti-protest laws.