Ukrainian Government Clings to Power As Protests Continue

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov offered to resign today and President Yanukovych agreed to walk back controversial new laws, but the attempt to pacify demonstrators is being seen by critics as another ploy by Yanukovych to remain in power. 

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Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov offered to resign today and President Viktor F. Yanukovych agreed to walk back controversial new laws — including one that essentially criminalized protests that are being made against him — but the attempt to pacify demonstrators is being seen by critics as another ploy by Yanukovych to remain in power.

Azarov explained in the letter offering to step down that his decision was made "for the sake of a peaceful resolution," to the anti-government protests that spread across the Ukraine over the weekend, intensifying in Kiev, reaching regions traditionally loyal to the president, and leaving five activists dead. The rallies began in November after Yanukovych made an eleventh-hour decision to renege on a much-anticipated trade deal between the EU and Ukraine, instead opting for a deal with former Soviet ruler Russia in a show of loyalty.

The government has offered several half-hearted powersharing measures in recent days, but those have been rejected by opposition leaders who want to see the full government resign. However, in a rebuke to those calls, The Wall Street Journal reports Russia is now threatening to withdraw their deal should Yanukovych's government fall. 

Ukrainian riot police in Kiev. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Ukrainians hoping that the EU deal would increase economic opportunities at home reacted with massive, but largely peaceful protests, which died down in December, but began in earnest again two weeks ago after Yanukovych passed restrictive legislation barring people from wearing helmets, blocking public buildings, pitching tents or slandering government officials — essentially making it impossible to hold demonstrations. The government even began sending mass texts to everyone in the area, warning them that they were being watched.

According to Azarov:

The state of conflict in the nation threatens the social and economic development of Ukraine, and presents a threat to all Ukrainian society, and all its citizens... In order to create additional opportunities for social and political compromise for the sake of peaceful resolution of the conflict, I made a personal decision to ask the president of Ukraine to accept my resignation.

In an emergency session this week, Parliament voted to repeal the law with an overwhelming majority, 361 to 2, and Yanukovych agreed to the decision. On Tuesday, Parliament will discuss walking back constitutional amendments Yanukovych had previously made to give the office of the presidency more power. They will also consider granting amnesty to jailed protesters, on the condition that activists cease occupying government buildings. 

PM Mykola Azarov. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

But Yanukovych's opponents see Azarov's offer and the legislative turn-around as meaningless concessions. According to the New York Times, Yanukovych is known as a fierce negotiator and could be offering superficial compromises to secure his position, alleviating a problem he created himself to distract from the original outcry:

While nominally a concession to the opposition, a repeal of the laws would simply reverse a provocative legislative maneuver on Jan. 16 that only further infuriated antigovernment protesters who at that point had been on the streets for nearly two months over other grievances.

The Times adds that Yanukovych's original decision to thwart the EU deal was also well reasoned, suggesting that he is not prepared to rethink the decision that angered so many Ukrainians in the first place:

Mr. Yanukovych has repeatedly proved himself to be a wily negotiator. After backing away from the deal with Europe, which would have required him to free Ms. Tymoshenko, as well as to undertake painful austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund, Mr. Yanukovych secured a desperately needed $15 billion financial rescue package from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. At the same time, he avoided having to declare that Ukraine would join Russia’s customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which the Kremlin has clearly wanted as part of a deal.

Even Azarov's stepping down could be a largely symbolic gesture. The prime minister has been loyal to the president, stepping in to explain the merits of the Russia deal when the people rebelled against it, but the president essentially offered him as a political sacrifice over the weekend when he suggested he be replaced by an opposition leader. With this in mind, Azarov's offer appears to have come from a place of embarrassment, and could serve to bolster Yanukovych's rule. Reuters explains

[Azarov] has been publicly humiliated by Yanukovich's offer at the weekend to give his job to former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition leaders, in an effort to stem the rising protests against his rule. The opposition has been calling consistently for the resignation of the Azarov government since the onset of the crisis. But opposition leaders have shied away from the offer of top government posts by Yanukovich, seeing it as a trap intended to compromise them in front of their supporters on the streets.

Though strategic, the offers do suggest that the Ukrainian government fears losing control as protests continue. Rumors of a state of emergency prompted EU diplomat Catherine Ashton, who will pay a visit to the country today, to express "alarm" over the possibility. Ukrainian officials have denied that the state of emergency is imminent. And protesters remain strong in their call for Yanukovych himself to step down. If they stick to this conviction, any concessions he offers could lead nowhere.

Update: The Associated Press is reporting that Yanukovych has accepted Azarov's resignation, but asked him to remain on board until a new government is created. Azarov's cabinet will step down with him, leaving a political void for now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.