Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returned to work on Monday from four days of sick leave after opposition leaders appealed for Western assistance and an injured militant accused of rioting left the country for medical treatment.
The sick leave had sparked a guessing game he was taking himself out of action in preparation to step down or for a crackdown on widespread anti-government protests.
Yanukovych’s sick leave was announced on Thursday, with his office saying he had an acute respiratory illness. Some opposition leaders were sceptical about it, however, and thought Yanukovych was disappearing from the limelight in preparation for imposing a state of emergency amid the deepest turmoil in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005.
Yanukovych faces a crisis with no solution in sight that has dragged on for more than two months and has pitted Russia against Europe and the United States.
Opposition leaders have asked the West, which has so far pledged only verbal support for their cause, to mediate in talks with Yanukovych to prevent “misunderstandings”.
They have also requested “real financial aid” after more than two months of protests that have left much of central Kiev looking like a war zone and hobbled an already frail economy.
Speaking to a protest rally of over 60,000 people on Sunday, former economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Western officials had assured him that funding was on its way. “They are ready to do it,” he told the crowd.
Yanukovych’s sick leave was announced the morning after the parliament voted to offer amnesty to many of those arrested during protests on the condition that demonstrators vacate some of the buildings they occupy in Kiev and government buildings elsewhere in the country.
The measure was greeted with disdain by protesters, who characterised it as the government essentially taking hostages and then using them to try to negotiate concessions. Kiev’s city hall, which protesters have seized, is being used as an operations centre and dormitory key to supporting the extensive protester tent camp on the nearby Independence Square.
During Yanukovych’s sick leave, a sense of stasis set in and neither side showed signs of movement. But his return to work could bring new action.
On Tuesday, parliament is expected to consider reforms to the constitution that would reduce some presidential powers and allot them to the prime minister. Yanukovych last week accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, but has not appointed a new one.
Activist allowed to leave
Meanwhile, The case of Dmytro Bulatov showed the international resonance of events in Ukraine after European Union and US officials reacted with shock to his account of being kidnapped and tortured.
Bowing to pressure, a Kiev court on Sunday allowed the 35-year-old to leave the country for treatment in Lithuania and he was quickly taken by ambulance to the airport.
The Baltic News Service reported that Bulatov arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, shortly after midnight on Sunday, and was immediately rushed to a hospital. Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately answer phone calls and e-mails.
Bulatov said he was “crucified” by his unidentified captors before being released in a forest last week and images of his bloodied face were broadcast around the world.
Ukrainian authorities have cast doubt on the veracity of his story and Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara dismissed his injuries as “a scratch” before retracting the comment.
The case has been highlighted by the opposition as an example of what it says is a “secret repression” against protesters in which pro-government vigilantes have been employed.
On Sunday, top opposition figures spoke to the rally to urge supporters to push forward with their demands. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the protest leaders, emphasised the importance of obtaining the release of all people arrested during the protests.
“We must free all,” Yatsenyuk said, adding that there were 116 people being held. “Freedom to every hero.”
Another protest leader, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, showed that opposition hopes for cooperation from abroad are high.
“The crisis will end at last when under the auspices of the international community we will hold new elections that will stop the regime of Yanukovych,” he said.
The protests touched off in November when Yanukovych turned his back on a partnership deal with the EU under pressure from Moscow – Ukraine’s former master. They have since expanded beyond Kiev into traditionally pro-opposition western Ukraine but also into central and eastern parts normally considered a heartland for Yanukovych.
Four people – two protesters and two policemen – were killed at the height of the clashes last month and more than 500 people have been injured, according to official figures.
The movement started out as a campaign for more European integration for the former Soviet republic but now reflects broader social disillusionment with Yanukovych’s rule.
Yanukovych has offered the opposition concessions including the dismissal of the prime minister and the entire cabinet as well as the scrapping of draconian anti-protest laws. But protest leaders are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of activists detained during the demonstrations and for Yanukovych to announce early elections.
They also want a constitutional overhaul to take away the sweeping powers that Yanukovych has accumulated during his rule and give more weight to the government and parliament.
Yanukovych supporters, concentrated in the mainly Russian-speaking east, say the president was democratically elected in and should serve out his term until next year.
To prop up Ukraine’s economy, Yanukovych also signed up for a US$15 billion bailout from Russia but that is now on hold pending a resolution of the crisis.
Russia has publicly supported Yanukovych, dismissing the protesters as far-right extremists and scathingly condemning foreign interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
But it is not taking a more active role perhaps to avoid international complications during the Winter Olympics in Sochi where President Vladimir Putin is keen to show off Russia’s new-found grandeur.