Ukrainians are bracing for another day of drama Wednesday as the country’s embattled President, Viktor Yanukovych, confronts opposition party leaders in parliament and thousands of protesters in the streets who are demanding his resignation.
The country is already facing an uncertain future after Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his cabinet resigned on Tuesday, saying the “intense danger the conflict imposes” demanded a response. Mr. Yanukovych appointed an interim administration and will now try to put together another government. Members of the Ukrainian parliament also voted to repeal a series of tough laws introduced two weeks ago that were aimed at cracking down on street demonstrations and free speech.
On Wednesday, parliamentarians will consider whether to go further and grant amnesty to any protester who has been arrested or sent to jail. Mr. Yanukovych has indicated that there can be no amnesty unless protesters agree to end their demonstrations and tear down a network of barricades around the capital’s Independence Square that has cut off much of the downtown area. That appears unlikely.
Far from backing off, the protesters have expanded their barricades and have even built a watchtower at one barrier that blocks traffic along a main street. They also plan to start a “national guard” on Wednesday, a sign that the movement has gone beyond its original pacifist intentions and become more aggressive.
The Prime Minister’s resignation and repeal of the protest laws were nowhere near enough, said demonstrator Andriy Marchenko, as he stood in the freezing cold Tuesday night to listen to speeches by opposition party leaders. “The [protesters’] main idea is the resignation of the government, including the President. It’s not just the resignation of Yanukovych, but an entire change of the system.”
His friend Irena Salo nodded in agreement, saying Mr. Yanukovych created the problems “and now he is trying to tell us that he solved the problems.” She added that “when new people with new ideas come to power, then you can see this as a victory.”
The growing militancy among protesters has put the three main opposition party leaders in a bind. While they claimed victory for the measures taken in parliament on Tuesday, they also know that the street protesters are demanding far more and have lost patience with all political leadership.
“We’re in limbo at the moment,” said Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a business and sociology professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. The opposition parties “are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they make a deal with [Mr. Yanukovych], they are sellouts. If they don’t, things could go back to violence.”
All three leaders vowed on Tuesday to continue the battle with Mr. Yanukovych and not to make any concessions. “The people who are on the maidan [or square] are not here for a simple change,” said Oleg Tyagnibok, who heads the Svoboda, or Freedom, party.
“The process has begun toward the resignation of the President,” added Vitali Klitschko, the former boxer who leads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform.
Another plea to countries in the West, including Canada, came from the sentimental figurehead for many of the protesters, Yulia Tymoshenko, who helped lead the Orange Revolution in 2004 and was sent to jail after Mr. Yanukovych came to power in 2010 on controversial charges relating to abuse of power.
On Tuesday, Ms. Tymoshenko’s daughter, Eugenia, read a statement from her mother urging other countries to take action. “Today we see the first small victory, something that was not even possible to think about just a few days ago,” said the younger Ms. Tymoshenko, referring to the government’s resignation. “But this is one front. The second front that my mother calls for is a Western front of our allies. They really need to introduce sanctions, those targeted right at the heart of this system of corruption. … This is something that we need now.”
There are also plenty of people who support Mr. Yanukovych. They came out by the thousands Tuesday morning and gathered in a park near the parliament buildings, eating free soup and listening to fiery speeches made by officials from the President’s party, the Party of Regions. Speaker after speaker denounced the protesters as fascists, and one even suggested an opposition party leader should be shot.
“Everyone here supports the President – only the President,” said Tatyana Ivaniva, as her friends nodded approvingly.
“We should put them in a cage and arrest them all,” added Zhana Harmesh, referring to the protesters. “The authorities we have are acting within the law and they were chosen by the electorate. No one has the right to change that.”