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Yanukovich on sick leave in midst of worst political crisis

UKRAINE President Viktor Yanukovich went on sick leave on Thursday 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 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 the unrest.

“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.

The amnesty offered freedom from prosecution to peaceful protesters, but only on condition that activists left official buildings they have occupied – something they have rejected.

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 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 $2bn of Ukrainian government bonds.

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’,” said Rostislav Pavlenko, a member of boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) party. “It allows Yanukovich not to sign laws, not to meet the opposition, absent himself from decisions to solve the political crisis.”

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.

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. 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 $15bn bailout deal.

The cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt against default rose to a new one month high yesterday, 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 dollar.

The statistics agency said the economy, dominated by steel exports, had ground to a halt in 2013. Analysts expect output to fall this year.

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