Ukraine PM quits, protest law quashed in bid to ease crisis

Opposition leader Klitschko says it is only ‘step to victory’ writes Dan McLaughlin in Kiev

Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov who resigned today. Photograph: Reuters

Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov who resigned today. Photograph: Reuters

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 12:15

Ukraine’s prime minister Mykola Azarov has offered to resign in a bid to resolve a spiralling crisis that he called “a threat to Ukrainian society as a whole and to every citizen.”

He made the announcement during an emergency session of parliament, at which pro-government deputies also agreed to quash legislation that they pushed through just 12 days ago to criminalise a vast range of protest activity. Demonstrators on Kiev’s Independence Square cheered as news of that vote came through.

The concessions came as the European Union and United States intensified calls on president Viktor Yanukovich to peacefully defuse a growing conflict across his country of 46 million people.

“To create more possibilities for social-political compromise, for the sake of a peaceful resolution of the conflict, I have taken a personal decision to ask the president accept my resignation,” Mr Azarov said.

“The conflict situation in the state threatens the social and economic development of Ukraine and is a threat to Ukrainian society as a whole and to every citizen...Today, the most important thing is to preserve the unity and integrity of Ukraine. It is much more important than someone’s personal plans or ambitions. That’s why I have taken this decision.”

Vladimir Oleinik, a leading member of Mr Yankovich’s ruling Regions Party, noted however that “the prime minister’s statement about resignation is not resignation. The president must accept his resignation.”

World boxing champion turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Mr Azarov’s departure would not end the protests

“This is not victory but a step to victory,” he said.

After two months of peaceful protests in Kiev and pro-opposition western and central Ukraine, violent clashes in the capital last week claimed the lives of up to six demonstrators, and unrest spread across the country as demonstrators seized control of local government buildings.

In talks with opposition leaders last night, Mr Yanukovich offered to free all those arrested during two months of rallies if protesters leave “all occupied buildings and streets.”

Many of those now rallying across Ukraine will only be satisfied with the resignation of Mr Yanukovich and snap elections for president and parliament, however.

They also have an array of other demands, including everything from constitutional reform to punishment of those responsible for several deaths in clashes between riot police and protesters, to the liberation of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

As talks got under away at the presidential administration last night, she urged opposition chiefs “categorically to not accept the authorities’ demeaning conditions and proposals.”

“The people of Ukraine have gone onto their squares not to get jobs for leaders or even for the annulment of dictatorial laws. They want to fundamentally change their lives, establish justice in Ukraine and a path to European values. They will not get another chance to do it,” she said.

“Politicians still do not understand that people are ready to achieve their aim even if it costs them their life, health and physical liberty. I understand their aspirations and fully support them. The crisis can only be solved by the complete fulfilment of the people’s demands by all politicians.”

Ms Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in jail in 2011 for abuse of power, in a case denounced by the European Union and United States as politically motivated. She remains a very popular and influential opposition figure, however.

She urged Ukrainians “to go forward, do not stop or reduce the power of your punch against the authorities. If you stop for even a minute, the country...could become hostage to tyranny for many years.”

Opposition leaders last night again rejected Mr Yanukovich’s offer to become prime minister and deputy premier.

“I don’t see myself in Yanukovich’s government,” Mr Klitschko said. “There’s no point even discussing a job in the cabinet with me.”

Mr Yanukovich is under mounting pressure as protests spread into parts of Ukraine where he is traditionally popular. Governors’ offices in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 25 regions are now controlled by protesters who are forming “people’s councils” to run local affairs.

He still retains considerable popularity and loyalty in eastern and southern Ukraine however, particularly in his native region of Donetsk and in Crimea, which is home to a majority ethnic-Russian population and Moscow’s Black Sea naval fleet.

Government officials say mainstream opposition leaders are not driving the protests, but are following in the wake of actions by “extremists” who they accuse of inciting violence, stockpiling weapons in occupied buildings and attacking and holding hostage police officers.

Demonstrators deny those claims, and blame police for the deaths of six protesters, five of whom were allegedly shot dead. At least one activist has been kidnapped and killed, others are missing, and several have been beaten up and harassed in recent weeks.

More radical protesters are now manning huge barricades in central Kiev and have taken control of buildings housing the energy, justice and agriculture ministries in recent days.

The White House said last night that vice president Joe Biden had called Mr Yanukovich to tell him the US condemned “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.”

Secretary general of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon yesterday expressed “grave concern” over Ukraine’s crisis and urged Mr Yanukovich to enter “constructive dialogue” with his critics.

The issue is likely to feature heavily at a summit between the EU and Russia today, after which the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to fly to Kiev.

Ms Ashton said she was “alarmed” by the possible imposition of a state of emergency, which “would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine”.

The protests began in late November when Mr Yanukovich abruptly rejected a historic pact with the EU that would have tilted Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West. Instead, he chose to repair relations with Moscow and secure financial aid and cheaper gas from the Kremlin.

The situation has been polarised, however, by his refusal to compromise, a series of riot police raids on demonstrators, the imposition of draconian laws and the recent deadly violence. Many protesters now say they are fighting for Ukraine’s democracy and independence from Russia.