KIEV: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich returned to his desk yesterday after four days of sick leave, while the political opposition pressed for further concessions to end more than two months of street protests. “He is back at work,” a presidential spokesman said.
Yanukovich, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West, is seeking a way out of a sometimes violent confrontation with protesters who have occupied city streets and public buildings following his decision in November to spurn a trade deal with the EU and accept financial aid from Moscow.
His first urgent task, after returning from an absence that some saw as a tactical gambit to gain time, is to name a new prime minister to succeed Mykola Azarov, who stepped down on Jan. 28 under pressure from the protest movement.
The speaker of parliament, an ally of Yanukovich, told lawmakers yesterday ahead of a new session of the legislature starting on Tuesday that the president was still planning to discuss the choice of premier with opposition leaders. “He is preparing these proposals this week,” Volodymyr Rybak said. “So far, no nomination papers have been sent to parliament.”
In other concessions, Yanukovich last week approved the repeal of recent anti-protest laws and offered a conditional amnesty to activists who have been detained in the unrest.
But opposition leaders, who have received huge backing and promises of financial support from the United States and EU governments, were pressing on Monday for further concessions.
The opposition wants a broader amnesty to free all those detained and a return to an earlier constitution, which would curb Yanukovich’s presidential powers and give greater control to parliament over the formation of governments.
Also today, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due to visit Kiev. She has said the EU and United States are preparing a package of economic support that would be available to Ukraine if it embarks on a transition to a new political system and new elections.
Such support would be needed if Russia froze a $15bn package it offered Yanukovich after he refused to sign the deal with the European Union. Having lent $3bn so far, Moscow suspended a further tranche of $2bn, saying it first wants to see which new government Yanukovich appoints.
In a worrying development for Ukrainians in the grip of an Arctic winter, energy firm Naftogas said it might not be able to pay Gazprom for Russian gas imports on which the former Soviet republic relies.
Easier terms for energy after years of “gas wars” with Kiev were part of Moscow’s support package agreed two months ago.
Russia, which had threatened Ukraine with ruinous trade sanctions if it signed up to last year’s EU pact, has been concerned to maintain its influence over the country of 45 million. It accused Western-backed opposition leaders yesterday of provoking unrest by calling for “volunteer militias”.
Anti-government militants have clashed with police and six people have been killed in violence in the past two weeks.
“We expect the opposition in Ukraine to avoid threats and ultimatums and join in dialogue with the authorities in order to finding a constitutional way out of the country’s deep crisis,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
With relations between the West and President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin already strained over a variety of issues, the fate of Ukraine, the biggest state lying between central Europe and Russia, has raised fears of broader instability across the continent if the standoff in Kiev should spiral out of control.