Ukraine’s president on Tuesday accepted the resignation of the government in a bid to quell violent anti-government protests that have gripped the capital Kyiv. The demonstrations began two months ago after Viktor Yanukovich backed away from signing a deal with the European Union.
The Ukrainian president’s website said Mr. Yanukovych had accepted the prime minister's resignation and that, under Ukrainian law, the rest of the Cabinet of Ministers must resign.
It said President Yanukovych had instructed the ministers to continue to carry out their duties “until the newly-formed Cabinet of Ministers starts working.”
The opposition welcomed the move, but said it was just one step towards their goal of early presidential elections. The current cabinet will remain in place until a new government is appointed.
Nov. 21: Ukraine suspends plans to sign EU association agreement
Nov. 30: Riot police crack down on anti-government protesters in Kyiv
Dec. 17: Russia offers $15 billion in loans and slashes gas prices
Jan. 16: Ukraine parliament passes anti-protest law
Jan. 22: Protests spread, two protesters shot and killed in Kyiv clashes
Jan. 25: President Viktor Yanukovych offers government posts to top opposition leaders
Jan. 28: Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigns, parliament repeals laws restricting protests
Lawmakers meeting in emergency session Tuesday also voted to repeal anti-protest laws introduced two weeks ago, by 361 votes to 2. The legislation had banned demonstrations and made it illegal to slander government officials. They were widely seen to have fuelled the protests.
The members of parliament were set to debate other concessions offered by the government late Tuesday, including an amnesty for detained protestors.
"Our condition for the amnesty is to release all the people except for the killers," explained Arseniy Yatseniuk, one of the three main opposition leaders. "Amnesty doesn't apply to murders, kidnapping, and torture, but it applies to all the rest."
A protest camp in Independence Square, Kyiv, Jan. 28, 2014. (H. Ridgwell/VOA)
A few hundred meters from the heavily-guarded Parliament building, protestors were sceptical of the concessions.
Singer and poet Serhiy Fomenko - a local hero among protestors on Independence Square - says the repealing of the laws will not be enough to end the protests.
“The resignation of the prime minister, and the repealing of the new laws are just two steps, and they are not enough," Fomenko said. "There are many other problems that must be addressed: the police brutality, the corruption. People are being beaten, kidnapped and tortured.”
Ihor Mazur, a member of the right-wing nationalist group called Pravyi Sector or Right Sector, which has a large presence in Independence Square, says the protestors will not leave until all their demands are met.
“We must not abandon our protest camps," Mazur warned. "We are not so naïve to believe that the government, this regime can change in just a couple of months. It will take time to change from within.”
Yanukovich’s supporters in Parliament have vowed to push for a state of emergency to be declared if the opposition refuses to call on protestors to leave government buildings. That could see police and the military move to clear the protest camps.
But protestors won’t give up their territory without a fight.
They are reinforcing the barricades. Sacks filled with hard-packed snow and looped with razor wire block every entrance to Independence Square and surrounding streets. Protestors wearing helmets and armed with clubs and knives man the narrow entrances.
The White House on Tuesday said Mr. Yanukovych informed Vice President Joe Biden of the latest developments.
A statement said Biden "welcomed progress" on defusing the crisis and urged the Ukrainian leader to sign into law "without delay" new legislation repealing anti-protest measures enacted earlier this month. It also said Biden voiced support for a Ukrainian amnesty law that would free protesters jailed since the anti-government demonstrations erupted two months ago.
President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia would keep its promise to lend Ukraine $15 billion and to reduce what it charges for natural gas exports to its neighbor even if the opposition comes to power.
Mr. Putin made his comments in Brussels, where he was attending an EU-Russia summit.
Meanwhile the anti-government demonstrations continue to grow in cities beyond Kiev. As Ukrainian lawmakers seek a peaceful end to the crisis, the atmosphere on the streets remains extremely tense.