An anti-government protester rests at an open fire as
temperatures reach -20degC at a barricade near Independence
Square in Kiev. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has gone on sick
leave after a bruising session of parliament, leaving a
political vacuum in a country threatened with bankruptcy and
destabilised by anti-government protests.
The 63-year-old president appears increasingly isolated in a
crisis born of a tug-of-war between the West and Ukraine's
former Soviet overlord Russia. A former president said this
week the violence between demonstrators and police had
brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Shortly after his office announced he had developed a high
temperature and acute respiratory ailment, Yanukovich
defended his record in handling the crisis and accused the
opposition, which is demanding his resignation, of provoking
"We have fulfilled all the obligations which the authorities
took on themselves," a presidential statement said, referring
to a bill passed late on Wednesday granting a conditional
amnesty for activists who had been detained.
"However, the opposition continues to whip up the situation,
calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the
political ambitions of a few leaders."
The amnesty offered freedom from prosecution to peaceful
protesters, but only on condition that activists left
official buildings they have occupied - something they have
Several members of Yanukovich's own party voted against the
bill, even after he visited parliament himself to rally
support, and some of his powerful industrialist backers are
showing signs of impatience with the two-month-old crisis.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday after a
sharp escalation of the street unrest, which began in
November when Yanukovich rejected a European Union deal in
favour of closer ties and a bailout deal with Russia.
The president, under pressure from Moscow not to tilt policy
back towards the West, has yet to appoint a successor. Serhiy
Arbuzov, Azarov's first deputy and a close family friend of
Yanukovich, has stepped in as interim prime minister.
"The president of Ukraine has been officially registered as
sick, with an acute respiratory ailment and a high
temperature," a statement on the presidential website said.
A subsequent statement gave fullsome tribute to a police
officer who was found dead early on Thursday, apparently from
a heart attack while on duty - an indication of how important
Yanukovich regards keeping the security forces on his side.
The bare announcement on his health gave no sign of when he
might be back at his desk or able to appoint a new
government, which Moscow says must be in place before it goes
ahead with a planned purchase of $2 billion of Ukrainian
"Today is the first day of the illness. He has a high
temperature. We are not doctors, but it is clear that a high
temperature does not go down in a single day," a presidential
spokesman said by telephone. "The doctors will do all they
can so that he can recover quickly."
Some opposition figures said they suspected Yanukovich might
be giving himself a breathing space after being forced into
concessions to try to calm the unrest on the streets.
"This smacks of a 'diplomatic illness'," Rostislav Pavlenko,
a member of boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko's Udar
(Punch) party, told Reuters. "It allows Yanukovich not to
sign laws, not to meet the opposition, absent himself from
decisions to solve the political crisis."
A close ally of Yanukovich, who was last seen in parliament
on Wednesday night, rejected that interpretation.
The president had hurried to the legislature to herd
supporters into voting for the amnesty bill. Mykhailo
Chechetov, from Yanukovich's Party of Regions, said the
president had told supporters there he had come to the
session directly from hospital. "He looked ill," Chechetov
Photographs released by the presidential press service of
Yanukovich holding talks with a European Union delegation
earlier in the day revealed no obvious signs of illness.
In a statement the three main opposition leaders, including
Klitschko, accused Yanukovich of ignoring violations of
voting procedure in the Wednesday night vote.
"Viktor Yanukovich bears responsibility for the violations of
constitutional norms ... (he) personally went to parliament
and by blackmail and intimidation forced his faction, which
is balanced on the edge of a split, to go back in and push
through a law even when there were not enough votes for it,"
Thirty-year-old Ruslan Andriyko, one of the hundreds of
protesters occupying Kiev's City Hall, said it would not
"We will clear this building only if we get the resignation
of Yanukovich, which is the main aim of our revolution, and
the approval of the people on the 'Maidan' (Kiev's
Independence Square)," he said.
The president has not had a history of ill health. He has
full control over the government and still has solid backing
in parliament but there are signs of discontent in his Party
of Regions over the continuing crisis on the streets.
He replaced his long-standing head of administration in
mid-January and has since sacked his press secretary.
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said he
believed the hasty visit to parliament was a sign Yanukovich,
who he has met many times, was afraid of losing support.
"I think this urgent visit by the President to parliament
shows he is afraid that the majority is no longer on his
side," Kwasniewski said on Polish radio.
Ukraine's richest entrepreneurs, whose support Yanukovich has
had and needs now, are now taking a more neutral line.
Chemical and gas billionaire Dmitry Firtash called on all
sides in the conflict to find a compromise by negotiations
that would yield "real" results, according to a statement
from him on Thursday. Ukraine's richest man, steel magnate
Rinat Akhmetov, made a similar appeal earlier this week.
Yanukovich's most urgent task now is to appoint a successor
to Azarov, who served him loyally for four years, while the
opposition is anxious that he also signs into force a repeal
of anti-protest legislation.
Ukraine badly needs a new government. Russian President
Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday Moscow would wait until one
was formed before fully implementing the $15 billion bailout
The cost of insuring Ukraine's debt against default rose to a
new one month high on Thursday, and Ukraine's central bank
intervened for a fourth successive day, offering dollars on
the inter-bank market to prevent a serious slide in the
national currency, the hryvnia, from its peg at around 8 to
The statistics agency said the economy, dominated by steel
exports, had ground to a halt in 2013. Analysts expect output
to fall this year.
Six people have been killed and hundreds have been injured in
street battles between anti-government demonstrators and
police which escalated sharply after the authorities
toughened their response. The police officer who died on the
street on Wednesday night took the death toll to seven.