UKRAINE’S embattled President Viktor Yanukovich signed into law on Friday an amnesty for demonstrators detained during mass unrest and repealed anti-protest legislation, in a fresh bid to take the heat out of the political crisis.
But the move by Yanukovich, who remains politically active despite going on sick leave on Thursday, was not likely to be enough to end the sometimes violent anti-government protests on the streets of Kiev and beyond.
Many protesters rejected the amnesty outright, because it is conditional on occupied buildings being cleared of activists, while a radical Ukrainian nationalist group behind much of the violence pressed for new tough demands.
The 63-year-old leader, who looks increasingly isolated in a tug-of-war between the West and former Soviet overlord Russia, suddenly withdrew from view on Thursday, complaining of a high temperature and acute respiratory ailment.
He has been under pressure since November, when his decision to accept a $15bn loan package from Moscow instead of signing a trade deal with Europe infuriated many of his compatriots and sparked huge protests in the capital.
The crisis forced Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to resign, and as yet there is no sign of a successor. Serhiy Arbuzov, Azarov’s first deputy and a close family friend of Yanukovich, has stepped in as interim prime minister.
Underlining its economic leverage over Ukraine, Russia says a new government must be in place before it goes ahead with a planned purchase of $2bn of Ukrainian government bonds.
That reluctance, and the turmoil more generally, contributed to a 2.5 per cent fall in the value of the hryvnia currency against the dollar on Friday to its lowest level for 4-1/2 years.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to meet opposition leaders, including boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich.
“Our message to Ukraine’s opposition will be the full support of President Obama and of the American people for their efforts,” Kerry said in Berlin before the meetings.
“But we will also say to them that if you get that reform agenda… we would urge them to engage in that because further standoff, or further violence that becomes uncontrollable, is not in anybody’s interests.”
Kerry also called on Russia to keep its distance.
“We would … say to our friends in Russia this does not have to be a zero (sum) game, this is not something where Ukraine should become a proxy and trapped in some kind of larger ambition for Russia or the United States.”
With opposition leaders away in Munich and freezing night temperatures gripping the capital, protest organisers have not called for a big rally on Sunday, when the biggest demonstrations tend to be held on Kiev’s Independence Square.
An anti-government activist who vanished a week ago appeared on television yesterday, his face badly beaten and with wounds to his hands, saying he was kidnapped and tortured by his abductors who had “crucified” him.
Dmytro Bulatov, 35, who was one of the leaders of anti-government protest motorcades called ‘Automaidan’, was taken to hospital after he appeared on Ukrainian television.
A far-right nationalist group called Right Sector, seen as being behind violent clashes with police in Kiev, meanwhile demanded the release of activists held by police, threatening to take the law into their own hands to free their comrades.
Right Sector, a paramilitary group whose violent actions have appalled opposition leaders and peaceful protesters, also said it wanted to play a direct role in any negotiations for a settlement between Yanukovich and opposition leaders.