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Ukraine Prime Minister Resigns; Parliament Cancels Anti-Protest Laws

By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov tended his resignation Tuesday, as the country’s opposition celebrated its first major victory in an ongoing standoff with the government.

Azarov’s resignation comes after two months of mass protests across the country and a week of violent clashes in Kiev in which at least four activists were killed, dozens arrested and hundreds injured on both sides — the worst street violence in the history of post-Soviet Ukraine.

The announcement came after four days of negotiations between opposition leaders and President Victor Yanukovich.

In a statement published on the Cabinet’s official website, Azarov said he resigned to create a possibility for a political compromise.

“We have been doing everything to prevent bloodshed, escalation of violence, violations of citizens’ rights,” the statement said. “For all these difficult years I have been doing my best for Ukraine to develop normally as a democratic European state.”

However, he said, “the scope of the acute and dangerous conflict” compelled him into retirement.

Word of the resignation was met with loud cheers from the thousands of protesters at a tent camp in Independence Square, a staging area of the anti-government protests, as well as those along barricades in central Grushevsky Street, the battlefield of recent days.

“It is good news but we will not go away until all our demands are met,” said young protester Maxim Ivashchenko, whose face was blackened by the soot of street fires. “Now we want Yanukovich to go and we want the murderers of our comrades punished.”

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Azarov resigned “to save face” before he was forced to leave.

“We have been insisting on his resignation for a few months already,” Klitschko said to reporters during an urgent parliamentary session Tuesday. “The resignation of the premier is a step toward the opposition’s victory but it is not a victory yet.”

Yanukovich had proposed a compromise deal over the weekend in which opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk was offered the premier’s job and Klitscko the position of deputy premier. They declined.

The resignation of Azarov, who has led the government since 2010, was one of the key demands of opposition leaders, who held him personally responsible, together with Yanukovich, for thwarting the signing of an association agreement with the European Union last November in favor of closer economic ties with Russia.

Azarov, a principal opponent of European integration, argued that such an alignment would mean mass unemployment and a speedy decline of the national economy.

The opposition’s package of demands also included immediate elections for the presidency and parliament, changes in the constitution in favor of a parliamentary republic with presidential powers seriously cut and the immediate release of over 100 protesters still held by the police.

Another key demand was the cancellation of recently adopted laws curbing rights and freedoms and providing punishment of up to 15 years in prison for participation in mass disorders.

In the wake of Azarov’s resignation, the parliament canceled a majority of those controversial laws, hastily passed less than two weeks ago after protests had deteriorated into violent confrontations with riot police in central Kiev.

The opposition hailed the cancellation of the measures and was pressing lawmakers for release of the detainees.

“We are not talking about amnesty but we are demanding the release of prisoners taken POW by the terrorists in power!” Andriy Parubiy, chief of the protest camp’s self-defense forces, told thousands of protesters in Independence Square as the news arrived from parliament.

“I approve of any news which could prevent further bloodshed,” a police officer standing in full anti-riot gear about 60 yards from the protesters said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “People out there are not our enemies. They are our brothers.”

AFP Photo/Vasily Maximov

Russia Vows It Will Not Allow Breakup Of Ukraine

By Sergei L. Loiko and Victoria Butenko, Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW — Russia will not allow the breakup of neighboring Ukraine and, if invited, is ready to mediate the violent conflict between street protesters and the leadership of the former Soviet republic, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

“Russia will do its utmost to help prevent (the breakup of Ukraine) and to stabilize the situation,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow, without elaborating on what actions Moscow might take. “Ukraine is our neighbor, partner, friend and brother and there can be no two opinions.”

With the divisions in Ukraine rooted in part over the question of whether to tie the country’s future more closely to Russia or the West, Lavrov lashed out at Western Europeans he accused of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs by supporting protesters in the streets of Kiev, the capital.

“We would prefer some of our European colleagues not to behave so unceremoniously in connection with Ukraine’s crisis, when members of a number of Europe’s governments without any invitations dashed to (Kiev’s Independence Square) to take part in anti-government demonstrations in the country with which they have diplomatic relations,” he said. “It is simply improper and it is heating up the situation.”

The protests in Kiev began in November when President Viktor Yanukovich refrained from signing a trade and association agreement with the European Union. They had largely been peaceful in recent weeks but erupted into violence Sunday.

Dozens of people have been injured on both sides in three days of clashes between protesters and riot police. Grushevsky Street, which houses government buildings, has been turned into a virtual war zone, with hundreds of protesters hurling bricks, cobblestones, flares and Molotov cocktails, and several thousand police responding with stunning noise grenades, rubber bullets and water cannons.

Lavrov argued that Europeans would not tolerate such violence in their nations.

“Pogroms, attacks on the police, arsons, Molotov cocktails, explosive devices, it is horrible, it is an absolute violation of all European norms of conduct,” he said. “I think that calls for common sense coming today from the leaders of the opposition and personally from (Ukrainian opposition leader) Vitali Klitschko demonstrate that the situation is going out of control.”

The third day of violence on Tuesday also produced the first signs that both sides were growing weary of the confrontation, with the number of clashes and the ranks of protesters and police significantly diminished. Demonstrators nonetheless advanced to the line of charred police buses on snowy Grushevsky Street, turning them into their front line. The police formed a new line of defense blocking the street with more buses and trucks 20 yards away.

The Interior Ministry said 163 police officers had been injured since Sunday, 80 of them hospitalized. Kiev health authorities said 122 protesters had been hurt and 40 of them hospitalized.
Thirty-two protesters had been arrested, police reported.

Promised talks between the government and opposition leaders failed to begin. Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, arrived early in the afternoon to meet with Yanukovich at the presidential offices but left after he was kept waiting.

“I came to meet the president and tell him that we must immediately stop violence in the capital and start making real steps to resolve the political crisis,” Klitschko said to reporters as he made his exit. Yanukovich’s aides “told me that the president was at the meeting and that he would call me when he is free. I turned around and went out.”

Many protesters don’t put much hope in the negotiations.

“The president entrusted the negotiations on his behalf to be conducted by the same officials who gave orders to use force against protesters in the first place,” said Olga Fedoryak, a 43-year-old housewife in Grushevsky Street on Tuesday. “How much more blood is needed to make the authorities respond to our demands? But they still treat us as a traffic jam in the street.”

The opposition demands early presidential and parliamentary elections, the resignation of the government, prosecution of the interior minister and the cancellation of recently adopted bills curbing human rights and freedoms, such as ones that prohibit protesters from wearing helmets and setting up tents in city squares and others that provide for an up to 15 years of imprisonment in connection with mass disorders.

AFP Photo/ Viktor Drachev