Ukraine ‘on brink of civil war,’ ex-leader warns as protester amnesty debated

Posted at 9:47 AM, Jan 29, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-29 11:47:32-05

By Laura Smith-Spark and Diana Magnay

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Ukraine is on the brink of civil war, the Eastern European country’s first post-independence President warned Wednesday as parliament met again to debate a possible amnesty for protesters arrested during two months of demonstrations.

Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s President from 1991 to 1994, addressed a special parliamentary session to seek a way out of a deepening political crisis following weeks of mass protests that have crippled the capital, Kiev.

“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.

Wednesday’s session comes 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 concessions made but said they were only a small step toward the change needed.

They want to see wide-ranging constitutional reform and a shake-up of the Ukrainian political system to shift the balance of power back toward parliament.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, or UDAR, said on his party’s website that the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych would be “a logical step.”

Kiev’s snow-covered streets remained calm Wednesday, namely around the demonstrators’ makeshift barricades in the central Independence Square and a road leading up to parliament — the scene of violent confrontations last week.

“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.”

Amnesty debate

Ukraine’s parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, is considering legislation that might provide amnesty for more than 200 people arrested since the demonstrations began in late November, centered on Independence Square.

Debate began Tuesday but continued into Wednesday. “The amnesty issue is not simple and difficult negotiations continue,” state news agency Ukrinform quoted parliament’s chairman, Volodymyr Rybak, as saying Tuesday.

Nationalist opposition party Svoboda, or Freedom, led by Oleg Tiahnybok, said the main bone of contention is that the government insists protesters must leave Independence Square before any amnesty law can take effect.

“The opposition, of course, cannot accept this condition,” said a statement on the party’s website.

Klitschko told journalists he was opposed to any bloodshed, but that demands in the government’s proposed amnesty bill remained unacceptable.

“People took to the streets because they want to change the situation. A statement ‘We will free people, if they go home’ is unacceptable. It cannot be understood,” he is quoted as saying on the UDAR website.

“Today, the key issue is the confrontation between people and government. Withdrawal of charges and amnesty is not enough.”

Violent confrontations

Parliament’s vote Tuesday in favor of repealing the controversial anti-protest laws, rammed through January 16 in a show of hands by members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, was overwhelming.

The repeal legislation has still to be signed off by Yanukovych.

Anger about the controversial anti-protest laws escalated the long-running protests into violent confrontations in the capital, with police and protesters fighting pitched battles among 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 Yanukovych on Wednesday, his presidential website reported.

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 function until a new government is formed, the presidential website said.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the opposition Fatherland party, refused an offer from Yanukovych over the weekend to be prime minister.

Klitschko 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.

Yanukovych’s representative in parliament, Party of Regions lawmaker Yuriy Miroshnychenko, told parliament Wednesday that discussions on the makeup of a new Cabinet could begin next week, Ukrinform 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.

The next presidential election is due in March next year.

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 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 and Marie-Louise Gumuchian and journalist Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

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