An anti-government protester stands guard as a fellow
protester hugs his girlfriend on a barricade that faces a
cordon of riot police in Kiev. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has returned to
work after four days of sick leave, issuing a warning about
rising "radicalism" after more than two months of unrest on the
streets but giving no word on a new prime minister.
Yanukovich, caught in a tug of war between Russia and the
West, is seeking a way out of a sometimes violent
confrontation with protesters who have occupied city streets
and public buildings following his decision in November to
spurn a trade deal with the EU and accept financial aid from
As he returned to work a day before parliament begins a new
session, the political opposition, buoyed by fresh
expressions of support from Western governments, pressed for
further concessions to end the street protests.
The president's first urgent task, after an absence that some
saw as a tactical gambit to gain time, will be to name a new
prime minister to succeed Mykola Azarov, who stepped down on
Jan. 28 under pressure from the protest movement.
But Yanukovich confined himself, in his first public
appearance since Wednesday, to warning against the actions of
thousands of protesters who have erected barricades around
central Kiev and occupied public buildings there and in other
cities, as well as militants who have clashed with police.
At least six people were killed in clashes last month.
"We must say no to extremism, radicalism, the fanning of
enmity in society, which is the basis of the political fight
against the authorities," he said in comments to an
international symposium that were carried on his website.
The speaker of parliament, an ally of Yanukovich, told
lawmakers on Monday that the president was still planning to
discuss the choice of premier with the opposition and may
propose someone this week.
In other concessions, Yanukovich last week approved the
repeal of recent anti-protest laws and offered a conditional
amnesty to activists who have been detained in the unrest.
But opposition leaders want further concessions, including a
broader amnesty to free all those detained and a return to an
earlier constitution, which would curb Yanukovich's
presidential powers and give greater control to parliament
over the formation of governments.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was due
in Kiev for talks with Yanukovich and separately with
opposition leaders on Wednesday. She is reported to have said
the EU and United States are preparing a package of economic
support that would be available to Ukraine if it embarks on a
transition to a new political system and new elections.
Such support could be needed if Russia froze a $15-billion
package it offered Yanukovich after he refused to sign the
deal with the European Union. Having lent $3 billion so far,
Moscow suspended a further tranche of $2 billion, saying it
first wants to see which new government Yanukovich appoints.
In a worrying development for Ukrainians in the grip of an
Arctic winter, energy firm Naftogas said it might not be able
to pay Gazprom for Russian gas imports on which the former
Soviet republic relies.
Easier terms for energy after years of "gas wars" with Kiev
were part of Moscow's support package agreed two months ago.
Russia, which had threatened Ukraine with ruinous trade
sanctions if it signed up to last year's EU pact, has been
concerned to maintain its influence over the country of 45
million. It accused Western-backed opposition leaders on
Monday of provoking unrest by calling for "volunteer
"We expect the opposition in Ukraine to avoid threats and
ultimatums and join in dialogue with the authorities in order
to find a constitutional way out of the country's deep
crisis," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
With relations between the West and President Vladimir
Putin's Kremlin already strained over a variety of issues,
the fate of Ukraine, the biggest state lying between central
Europe and Russia, has raised fears of broader instability
across the continent if the standoff in Kiev should spiral
out of control.
"All our partners both in the East and in the West understand
the threat to their countries if the political crisis is not
overcome and grows," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid
Kozhara said in comments to reporters. "The action of radical
groups which are acting openly gives special concern."
Tensions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and
Ukrainian-speaking west are evident in small groups on either
side which draw on historical enmities for emotional appeal.
The anti-government camp in central Kiev is adorned with
nationalist heroes who fought tsarist and Soviet control. On
the other side, some present themselves as heirs to the Red
Army, which drove Nazi occupiers from Ukraine in World War
Mainstream leaders play down the ethnic divide and say they
want good relations with both Russia and the West.
Yanukovich's main opponents, whose leaders won assurances of
support from U.S. and EU officials in Germany at the weekend,
are pushing for an immediate change in the political system,
as well as for a revival of the EU free trade deal.
Arseny Yatsenyuk, parliamentary leader of the biggest
opposition party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), told a meeting
on Monday of parliament's agenda-setting committee that his
bloc was ready to vote on a constitutional bill as early as
Party allegiances in the single-chamber legislature have been
fluid and it is unclear how far the opposition can rally a
majority over Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and its
The bill would restore the constitution to a version enacted
in 2004 during Ukraine's post-Soviet "Orange Revolution".
Yatsenyuk, who last week turned down an offer from Yanukovich
to become prime minister, said restoring the 2004
constitution would "cancel the dictatorial authority of the
president" and give parliament the power to form governments.
On Sunday, the government bowed to intense Western pressure
and let an opposition activist fly to the European Union for
treatment after his abduction, torture and then attempted
arrest by police last week fuelled outrage among protesters.
Dmytro Bulatov, 35, whose bloodied face and account of being
"crucified" during a week in the hands of mysterious
kidnappers has dominated opposition media, is now in
Lithuania. (Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing
by Richard Balmforth and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Giles