Ukraine on the brink?
The Ukrainian Government has approved a proposal granting amnesty to civilians detained during 2 months of protests centred in Independence Square in Kiev; protestors have occupied a number of government buildings, including the International Conference Centre, also known as Ukraine House.
By the terms of the proposal however, protestors must take down barricades and withdraw from the streets and squares that they have been occupying within the next 15 days if detainees are to be released without punishment.
At this stage there is no sign that the protestors will accept the terms of the deal, as they and their leaders continue to push for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych, who is officially on sick leave due to an acute respiratory illness and fever. Last night Yanukovych released a statement in which he accused the opposition of “calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders”.
There has been civil unrest in the country’s capital, Kiev, ever since President Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on a free trade and political integration pact with the EU that would have brought far closer ties to the West, in favour of a deal with Russia that will see the Russians buy $15bn usd of Ukranian bonds, and slash the prices of the gas that it sells to the country.
President Yanukovych, whose political stronghold is in the Russian speaking East of Ukraine, where he remains popular despite a number of recent uprisings as the protests spread nationwide, was forced on Tuesday to fire his hard-line Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, who has been in office since 2010.
Azarov, whose resignation automatically triggers that of the entire cabinet, has been accused of mis-managing the Ukrainian economy and failing to tackle corruption, and was also perceived by protestors to have been the man responsible for the heavy handed approach of the police.
At least 5 citizens have died as protestors reacted with renewed aggression to the passing of a controversial anti-protest law, which banned the wearing of helmets, pitching of tents in public, convoys of cars, and the blockading of public buildings, punishable by up to 15 years in jail.
Over the weekend protestors attacked police with fireworks and petrol bombs, with both sides reporting injuries in numbers running into the thousands. Emotions have been running high since reports emerged that the bodies of 2 activists had been found in woods North of Kiev with apparent signs of torture. Thousands of people lined the streets on Sunday for the funeral of a third victim.
Parliament yesterday voted by an overwhelming 361 votes to 2, with 49 abstentions, to scrap the new law, passed just 2 weeks previously.
Talks with opposition leaders
Yanukovych, who had previously offered the role of Prime Minister to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the opposition party Fatherland, has appointed Serhiy Arbuzov, the 37 year old deputy PM and a loyal supporter of Yanukoych, as interim Prime Minister.
On Sunday, after lengthy talks with the President, both Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxer, now leader of the UDAR (Punch) party, refused posts in Yanukovych’s government, declaring that they would continue to fight on until their demands, chiefly the resignation of Yanukovych and parliamentary elections being brought forward, were met.
Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and a third man, Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the right wing Ukranian Nationalist party, have been involved in a total of 4 rounds of talks with the president and have won significant concessions; it remains to be seen if the they can sustain a level of protest sufficient to secure all of their demands, but the signs are that the protestors are willing to fight on.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic former Prime Minister and founder of the Fatherland party, who is currently serving a prison sentence in the city of Kharkiv after being convicted of embezzlement and abuse of power in a trial many believe to have been politically motivated, has sent passionate messages of support to the protestors, insisting that they should not accept the governments “humiliating offer”; a message on her website reads:
“For days and nights you froze on the maidans, risked your health and lives, lost your best sons not for Yanukovych to replace Azarov’s government with another, equally corrupt government, and not for bloodied hands to again promise you a happy life.”
Tymoshenko was one of the perpetrators of the so called Orange Revolution, joining forces with Victor Yushchenko to contest the 2004 elections, against current incumbent Yanukovych. Although Yanukovych was initially declared the winner of the vote for President, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko marched through Kiev with their supporters and succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court to annul the vote due to corrupt practices. Yushchenko won the re-run and made Tymoshenko his Prime Minister, although the union was short-lived, as the two failed to unite the government and Tymoschenko was later fired.
Before entering politics Tymashenko was a highly successful businesswoman dubbed “the Princess of Gas” after setting up United Energy Systems of Ukraine, a privately owned middleman company that became the main importer of Russian natural gas to Ukraine, from 1995 to 1999. Although she had become politically unpopular due to accusations of corruption involving payments made during her time as PM to predecessor Pavlo Lazarenko, who was convicted of fraud in the US in 2006, Tymashenko’s political stock has risen as voters, mainly in the West of Ukraine, who admire the Western way of life, favour her pro EU stance and may be willing to forget past transgressions and engineer an implausible return to government. Ironically, a clause in the pro EU deal that Yanukovych eventually refused to sign, insisted upon Tymaschenko’s release, which may have played a part in Yanukovych’s decision to turn to Russia instead.
Yushchenko joined forces with former Presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma yesterday in urging parliament to “act with the greatest responsibility” as deliberations over the amnesty for detained protestors took place. President Yanukovych, who remains desperate to stay in power, has insisted on the amnesty being conditional upon protestors leaving official buildings and dismantling barricades, and the law was passed late last night by 232 votes as his parliament stayed loyal, although cries of “shame” could be heard from opposition MPs. Protestors and the 3 opposition leaders wish to see the President resign so that politics in Ukraine can be “re-booted”.
Kravchuk pleads with parliament to avoid revolution:
Kravchuk, who has described the escalating tension, which has resulted in chaotic scenes in parliament, as “a Revolution”, added that “we need to ease the confrontation between the sides and agree a plan to solve the conflict. We need to work on this plan step by step to ease the confrontation.”
The EU has sent a delegation, including Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to Kiev to try to intermediate between the protestors and parliament and find a workable solution to the crisis. Ashton is said to be “shocked” by reports of violent intimidation, and told journalists yesterday “we are very worried about people who appear to be missing”.
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned Europe not to interfere in the crisis, comparing the situation with the recent bailout crisis in Greece: “I can only imagine what the reaction would be if in the heat of a crisis in Greece or Cyprus, our foreign minister came to an anti-European rally and began urging people to do something. This would not be good,”
Putin assured the EU that Russia had no plans to interfere in the crisis either, although he has implied that Russia will withhold further instalments of its bond buying program until it is clear who the next government will be.
It is clear that Russia does not wish to see a pro-European parliament elected, which would be contrary to its interests in the region, which include the transport of gas into mainland Europe.
Putin made it clear on Tuesday that he does not believe the proposed EU pact with the Ukraine could go ahead at the same time as his bond purchase program, which has already been agreed, with 3bn of payments made to date. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, however, has noted that Ukraine is struggling to pay its energy bills even at the lower price, which he has suggested “seriously changes the situation”. According to the Ukraine Employer’s federation, exporters are facing heightened security checks, fees and delays at the Russian border, which could be a sign that Moscow is ramping up the pressure for Ukrainians to end their protests.
The opposition leaders have so far held firm, but a further 15 day delay will test their resolve still further, whilst being forced to evacuate government buildings, which have been used as dormitories and operational centres by the protestors, will result in a worsening of conditions. It certainly looks as though Yanukovych is trying to buy himself more time both to demoralise protestors, and build up his defences; a member of UDAR, Klitschko’s party, commented: “this smacks of a diplomatic illness”.
In a further twist to an already complex state of affairs, a statement on the website of the SCM group Company, which is owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, surfaced on Tuesday, which read:
“It is only by peaceful action that the political crisis can be resolved. Any use of force and weapons is unacceptable. With this scenario there will be no winners in Ukraine, only victims and losers. But most importantly, the use of force will not help to find a way out.”
This may explain why Yanukovych, who had previously turned a blind eye to the activities of the protestors, refusing to offer any concessions or even acknowledge that there was a problem, swiftly changed his tune and entered into negotiations with Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and Tyanhybok.
Akhmetov is a Ukrainian mining oligarch who has had a significant influence of Yanukovych’s career to date. When Akhmetov was the business Director of the Donbas mining region in the Ukraine, Yanukovych served under him as political Director.
It has been rumoured that a number of the country’s powerful business elite are growing concerned by Yanukovych’s government, which has seen a “family” of businessman grow up around the President, who are believed to have won a number of favourable contracts. Several of these young businessmen have amassed large fortunes in a very short period of time after being awarded some notable government contracts. Ukraine’s business leaders are not necessarily concerned whether their Government is pro EU or pro-Russian, however they have a strong vested interest in a stable government that is strong enough and popular enough with voters to continue to represent their interests.