Ukraine’s embattled president yesterday announced he would return to work after four days’ sick leave as protesters filled Kiev’s main square demanding he give up power.
Opposition leaders, addressing the crowd on their return home from meeting European and US officials, said they hoped for international mediation in negotiations with the government and for constitutional change to limit presidential power.
Viktor Yanukovich, who angered opponents in November by spurning a trade pact with the European Union and turning instead to Moscow for financial support, announced on Thursday he was on sick leave and has not been seen in public since.
Critics saw in that a tactic to deflect pressure for political compromise. On Friday, he signed legislation revoking unpopular new restrictions on protest meetings that has, however, failed to appease opponents who are demanding the release of dozens of people arrested in recent weeks.
A presidential statement issued yesterday said Mr Yanukovich planned to return to work today after an acute respiratory infection. The announcement came as thousands of people gathered to listen to opposition leaders in Kiev’s Independence Square in freezing conditions.
Vitaly Klitschko, a former world champion boxer-turned-politician, said they had discussed with senior Western officials at a security conference in Munich bringing in international mediators in talks with the Ukrainian authorities.
“The democratic world has understood that there is no trust in the Yanukovich regime,” he told the crowd.
“So we spoke about international mediation in negotiations with Yanukovich, so that afterward there will no differing interpretations of obligations.”
Arseny Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshchyna party, who turned down an offer last week from Mr Yanukovich to become prime minister, called on the authorities to free 116 prisoners.
The president signed a law allowing protesters to be set free – but only once demonstrators stop occupying public buildings.
Mr Yatsenyuk also renewed a call for a release of his party’s leader, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose freedom has also been a demand of the European Union. And he said there should be an international inquiry into “the criminal regime”, held under the auspices of the Council of Europe.
“We told our Western partners we need real financial help to get the country out of crisis,” Mr Yatsenyuk said.
“But when we say ‘we’, we mean the Ukrainian people – not a penny must go to the Yanukovich regime. They are ready to help the Ukrainian people. But we must restore popular authority,” he added.
Some opposition leaders have urged the European Union, whose foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due in Kiev tomorrow, to impose sanctions to hurt the business and financial interests of the president and his leading supporters.
However, few European governments see that as worthwhile at present. Speaking in Munich, Ms Ashton said yesterday: “It’s really important first and foremost that the violence in Ukraine stops, and that they move to a constructive dialogue.”