Parliament out until next week; opposition's next move unclear
Parliament OKs amnesty; opposition leader calls conditions "unacceptable"
Former Ukrainian President warns nation "on the brink of civil war"
President Viktor Yanukovych meets top EU foreign policy chief in Kiev
Will giving Ukraine’s anti-government activists amnesty help avert what its first modern-day leader fears will be a civil war?
Wednesday night’s vote by parliament to let those who have taken to the streets the past two months off the hook is the latest attempt to try to lower the temperature on the crisis in the Eastern European nation.
A top legislator announced that all factions had approved the amnesty law, yet the opposition didn’t rally around it. In fact, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of the Fatherland Party, said he didn’t know what was in the hastily moved legislation.
Another opposition leader, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms’ Vitali Klitschko, said he and his supporters could not stand behind a move that basically called for an end to protests without real change beyond freeing the 218 activists who the Interior Ministry says have been arrested.
“People took to the streets because they want to change the situation,” Klitschko said. “A statement, ‘We will free people, if they go home’ is unacceptable. It cannot be understood.
“Today, the key issue is the confrontation between people and government,” he said. “Withdrawal of charges and amnesty is not enough.”
Especially compared to last week’s violent confrontations, Kiev’s snow-covered streets were calm Wednesday. Still, the tension, the anger, the determination was evident, especially among those hunkered down in makeshift barricades in the central Independence Square and a road leading up to parliament.
“I think the people should not leave the barricades,” one Kiev resident told CNN. “Nothing is decided yet, let them decide – now they just promise but don’t make decisions. People are being tricked. They are tired of it.”
This Ukrainian isn’t the only one who believes time may be running out.
So, too, does Leonid Kravchuk, who between 1991 and 1994 was Ukraine’s first President after it became independent from what had been the Soviet Union.
He addressed a special parliamentary session aimed at seeking a way out of a deepening political crisis.
The parliament won’t reconvene until February 4, and the opposition hasn’t announced its next move. That leaves the volatile situation in limbo, much like it’s been for weeks.
Kravchuk said there’s real urgency to find an answer to this crisis, even if the answer itself is not clear.
“Let’s be honest, the situation is dramatic. Both Ukraine and the world recognize the country is on the brink of civil war,” Kravchuk said.
EU official: ’Stop the senseless violence’
Wednesday’s emergency session came after a day of political upheaval when Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his Cabinet resigned and draconian anti-protest laws were annulled.
Opposition politicians and activists welcomed the concession – but Klitschko said it was only one small step of the many needed. The resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych would be a “logical step,” he said.
Parliament also voted Tuesday to annul controversial anti-protest laws rammed through January 16 by members of President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions in a show of hands.
Parliament overwhelmingly backed the repeal, but the president still hasn’t signed it.
Anger over the anti-protest laws escalated tensions in the capital, with police and protesters fighting pitched battles amid burning tires and barricades.
The legislation also prompted concern in the European Union and United States, where leaders condemned what appeared to be an attempt to limit freedom of speech and the right to protest.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton traveled to Kiev and met with Yanukovych on Wednesday.
“It’s important to stop the senseless violence. … The dialogue that happens from time to time needs to become a real dialogue,” Ashton later told a news conference.
“It’s very clear that people are very keen to find a solution. …There is no question of the importance of finding a quick way forward.”
Vying for influence
Under Ukrainian law, Azarov’s resignation as prime minister triggered the resignation of his government with him.
But he and his Cabinet will continue in a caretaker role until a new government is formed, the presidential website said.
Yatsenyuk refused an offer from Yanukovych over the weekend to be prime minister.
Klitschko – a former world champion boxer who has stressed the need to prevent violence while also insisting on larger reforms – also turned down an offer to be vice prime minister of humanitarian affairs.
According to the law, a new government should be formed within 60 days. The next presidential election is due in March next year.
Yanukovych’s representative in parliament, Party of Regions lawmaker Yuriy Miroshnychenko, told parliament on Wednesday that discussions on the makeup of a new Cabinet could begin next week, the official Ukrinform news agency reported.
“We cannot talk about the political color of the government, because there is no response from the opposition regarding seats on the Cabinet of Ministers, and it will be clear only after the talks whether this is a technical government or a political government,” he said, according to the news agency.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is home to 45 million people. The recent clashes are an escalation of weeks of largely peaceful public protests prompted by Yanukovych’s decision in November to spurn a planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia.
He and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on a $15 billion deal for Russia to buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price of natural gas.
Putin has denied that Moscow is exerting undue influence in Ukraine.
“Russia has always respected, is respecting and will respect the sovereign rights of all the international entities including new states that emerged after breakdown of the Soviet Union,” Putin said, speaking after a summit Tuesday with senior EU figures in Belgium.
Putin also said Russia would stick to the loan and energy commitments to Ukraine – agreed to in December – even if the opposition comes to power.
CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London and Diana Magnay reported from Kiev. CNN’s Khushbu Shah, Karen Smith, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Michael Martinez and journalist Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.