Ukraine: Opposition seeking to weaken president

Viktor Yanukovych is resisting calls to stand down. Picture: GettyViktor Yanukovych is resisting calls to stand down. Picture: Getty
Viktor Yanukovych is resisting calls to stand down. Picture: Getty
Leaders of the anti-government protests that have gripped Ukraine’s capital for more than two months have said they will seek constitutional changes to weaken the president’s powers.

The changes are expected to be discussed in parliament today. Protesters are refusing to leave their encampment in downtown Kiev or vacate buildings they are occupying.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said constitutional change would “cancel the dictatorial powers of the president and transfer the right of governing the country to the Ukrainian people”.

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Another protest leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, said the opposition will also push for a blanket amnesty for more than 100 people arrested in the protests. Parliament last week offered amnesty to some, on the condition that protesters leave many of the buildings they occupy, but the opposition said authorities were essentially using the arrested as hostages.

Protesters are also demanding president Viktor Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections.

Violent police actions against demonstrations galvanised anger over a wide range of grievances against Mr Yanukovych’s rule and the protests grew markedly, sometimes attracting crowds of more than 100,000.

Mr Yanukovych backed away from the European Union deal because of concerns that the bloc was not offering a sufficient cushion for the trade that Ukraine would probably lose with Russia, which wants the country to be part of a Moscow-led trade alliance. He then obtained an aid package from Russia worth the equivalent of about £9.2 billion, further angering protesters who resent Russia’s long dominance of Ukraine.

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said yesterday the EU and its international partners are discussing what more can be done to help, provided Kiev will commit to reforming its economy in return.

Mr Barroso said the offer of a trade deal remains on the table, but the EU was not about to enter a “bidding competition of who pays more for a signature from Ukraine”.

EU foreign policy chief Baroness Ashton is expected in Ukraine this week for talks, as is US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland.

Mr Yanukovich’s main opponents, whose leaders won assurances of support from US and EU officials in Germany at the weekend, are pushing for an immediate change in the political system, as well as for a revival of the EU free trade deal.

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However, it is unclear how far the opposition can rally a majority over Mr Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions and its allies. The opposition bill would restore the constitution to a version enacted in 2004 during Ukraine’s post-Soviet “Orange Revolution”.

After Mr Yanukovich was initially declared the winner of a presidential election that year, parliament passed amendments to the constitution, limiting presidential power.