Ukraine lawmakers debate amnesty for protesters - South Texas, Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend

Ukraine lawmakers debate amnesty for protesters

  • Ukraine's Parliament debates a possible amnesty law in a special session
  • Opposition party says it won't accept government demand
  • Prime Minister and his Cabinet resigned Tuesday amid the political crisis
  • EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is in the capital, Kiev

By Laura Smith-Spark and Diana Magnay

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) -- Ukraine's lawmakers are meeting again Wednesday in a special session of Parliament to debate a possible amnesty for protesters arrested during weeks of demonstrations.

The session comes after a day of political upheaval Tuesday in which Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his Cabinet resigned and draconian anti-protest laws were annulled.

Opposition politicians and activists welcomed the concessions made, but said they were only a small step toward the change needed.

They want to see wide-ranging constitutional reform and a shake-up of the Ukrainian political system to shift the balance of power back toward Parliament.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, or UDAR, said on his party's website that the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych would be "a logical step."

Ukraine's first post-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, warned that the country was on the brink of civil war as he addressed the special session Wednesday.

But despite the ex-leader's strong words, there was calm in the snow-covered streets of the capital, Kiev, where protesters manned barricades in Independence Square and a road leading up to Parliament -- the scene of violent confrontations last week.

"I think the people should not leave the barricades," one Kiev resident told CNN. "Nothing is decided yet, let them decide -- now they just promise but don't make decisions. People are being tricked. They are tired of it."

Ukraine's parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, is considering legislation that might provide amnesty for more than 200 people arrested since the demonstrations began in late November, centered on Independence Square.

Debate began Tuesday but continued into Wednesday. "The amnesty issue is not simple and difficult negotiations continue," state news agency Ukrinform quoted Parliament's chairman, Volodymyr Rybak, as saying Tuesday.

Nationalist opposition party Svoboda, or Freedom, led by Oleg Tiahnybok, said the main bone of contention is that the government insists that protesters must leave Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, before any amnesty law can take effect.

"The opposition, of course, cannot accept this condition," said a statement on the party's website.

Klitschko told journalists he was opposed to any bloodshed, but that demands in the government's proposed amnesty bill remained unacceptable.

"People took to the streets because they want to change the situation. A statement 'We will free people, if they go home' is unacceptable. It cannot be understood," he is quoted as saying on the UDAR website.

"Today, the key issue is the confrontation between people and government. Withdrawal of charges and amnesty is not enough."

Violent confrontations

Parliament's vote Tuesday in favor of repealing the controversial anti-protest laws, rammed through parliament on January 16 in a show of hands by members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, was overwhelming.

The repeal legislation has still to be signed off by Yanukovych.

Anger about the controversial anti-protest laws escalated the long-running protests into violent confrontations in the capital, with police and protesters fighting pitched battles among burning tires and barricades.

The legislation also prompted concern in the European Union and United States, where leaders condemned what appeared to be an attempt to limit freedom of speech and the right to protest.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Kiev late Tuesday and is expected to make a statement on the situation Wednesday.

Yanukovych met Tuesday with European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule.

Vying for influence

Under Ukrainian law, Azarov's resignation triggered the resignation of his government with him.

But he and his Cabinet will continue in their roles in a caretaker function until a new government is formed, a notice on the presidential website said.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the opposition Fatherland party, refused an offer from Yanukovych over the weekend to be prime minister.

Klitschko also turned down an offer to be vice prime minister of humanitarian affairs.

According to the law, a new government should be formed within 60 days.

Yanukovych's representative in parliament, Party of Regions lawmaker Yuriy Miroshnychenko, told parliament Wednesday that discussions on the makeup of a new Cabinet could begin in parliament next week, Ukrinform reported.

"We cannot talk about the political color of the government, because there is no response from the opposition regarding seats on the Cabinet of Ministers, and it will be clear only after the talks whether this is a technical government or a political government," he said, according to the news agency.

The next presidential election is due in March next year.

Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is home to 45 million people. The clashes over the past 10 days are an escalation of weeks of largely peaceful public protests prompted by Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn the planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead.

He and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on a $15 billion deal for Russia to buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price of natural gas.

Putin has denied that Moscow is exerting undue influence in Ukraine.

"Russia has always respected, is respecting and will respect the sovereign rights of all the international entities including new states that emerged after breakdown of the Soviet Union," Putin said, speaking after a summit Tuesday with senior EU figures in Belgium.

Putin also said Russia would stick to the loan and energy commitments to Ukraine -- agreed in December -- even if the opposition comes to power.


CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London and Diana Magnay reported from Kiev. CNN's Khushbu Shah and Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.



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