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Ukraine on Edge


Ukraine Repeals Anti-Protest Laws as Dissidents Occupy Government Offices

January 28th 2014

Ukraine's parliament has repealed controversial antiprotest laws in a move aimed at ending two months of antigovernment protests.

A total of 361 lawmakers out of 412 present voted to repeal the legislation at a special session of parliament on January 28.

The laws had sparked violent clashes between antigovernment protesters and riot police when they were enacted earlier this month.

President Viktor Yanukovych agreed to abolish them on January 27 after talks with opposition leaders, who have made their repeal a key demand.

The vote came after Prime Minister Mykola Azarov -- a loyal Yanukovych ally -- announced he was stepping down. Azarov said in a statement that he was resigning to create "an additional possibility for a political compromise to peacefully resolve the conflict."

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Azarov's resignation was only "a step to victory." Yanukovych first appointed Azarov as prime minister in March 2010. His resignation must be approved by the president, but that is seen as a mere formality.

Yanukovych over the weekend offered the post of prime minister to another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, but Yatsenyuk turned down the offer. On the eve of the special parliament session, Yanukovych met with the three main opposition leaders -- Yatsenyuk, Klitschko, and Oleh Tyahnybok -- and agreed to repeal controversial antiprotest laws passed by parliament on January 16. Yanukovych also promised an amnesty for protesters arrested in the antigovernment demonstrations, but only if protesters would leave the streets and end their occupation of government buildings. The opposition is demanding that Yanukovych himself resign and that an early election be called.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported ahead of the special parliamentary session that the ruling Party of Regions showed signs of a rift among its lawmakers over Azarov's fate, perhaps its most serious crack since street protests began two months ago. Klitschko spoke to journalists late on January 27. He said "In reality, the problem that exists in Ukraine, the problem we are facing, is a result of the mediocre politics of the whole country's leadership," Klitschko said. "And it is stupid to search for the reasons in the people."

One of the radical factions within the broad-based protest movement has issued its own demands. Right Sector, reported to be the driving force behind most of the recent violence, said it wants officials responsible for the deaths and abuse of protesters to be punished. It also wants Ukraine's feared riot police disbanded and missing opposition figures located.

After Azarov's offer of resignation was announced on January 28, parliament broke off its special session until later in the day. Antigovernment protests started in late November after Yanukovych suddenly decided not to sign a deal on closer ties with the European Union, after years of negotiations and days away from a summit in Vilnius where a signing was expected.

The protests have since turned into a mass movement against perceived misrule and corruption under Yanukovych's leadership. The protests, initially centered mainly in Kyiv, have now spread across most of the country -- even to Yanukovych's strongholds in the Russian-speaking east. Protesters claim they now hold administration buildings in 11 of Ukraine's 27 regions, mainly in the Ukrainian-speaking west.

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton is traveling to Kyiv later on January 28, immediately after an EU-Russia summit in Brussels that is expected to be overshadowed by sharp differences over Ukraine. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in a telephone call a day earlier, warned Yanukovych against imposing a state of emergency, urged him to pull back riot police, and to work with the opposition to deescalate tensions.

-- From RFE/RL and agencies. 

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