KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov survived a raucous parliamentary session and a vote of no confidence in his government Tuesday, leaving him secure until February and the country’s political crisis set to continue for some time.
Barely audible above the chants of opposition lawmakers, Azarov defiantly insisted he had the support of the majority of Ukraine’s 46 million people, despite enormous protests that have gripped the capital since President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly backed out of signing an agreement with the EU in favor of better economic relations with Russia.
“The more you shout, the more confident and self-assured I am,” Azarov said, as the opposition screamed “Shame!” and “Resign!” Azarov went on to threaten opposition lawmakers with prosecution for blockading government buildings since huge protests Sunday which attracted at least 350,000 people, the most since 2004’s Orange Revolution. Protests had appeared to be fizzling out until riot police violently cleared a peaceful gathering in Kiev’s Independence Square in the early hours of Saturday, turning a tepid movement for economic integration with the EU into a fully-fledged movement for Yanukovych’s resignation.
“We extended our hand to you,” Azarov said. “If we meet with a fist, I’m telling you - we’ve got enough forces.”
Ukraine’s government insists it still intends to sign the agreement, despite backing out of it at a summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, last month, but cannot do so until it receives assurances from the EU over compensation for potential trade losses with Russia. President Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine to join a customs union with five other post-Soviet states instead, and has warned signing the EU deal grave economic consequences for Ukraine, whose economy is heavily reliant on Russian trade.
Azarov said he would send a delegation to Brussels next week to negotiate with the EU and claimed European leaders were prepared to compensate Ukraine for the financial burden the agreement would entail. The EU has repeatedly said it would welcome Ukraine signing the agreement, but has refused to negotiate with it over the terms or enter trilateral talks with Russia proposed by Kiev.
Yanukovych left on a visit to China Tuesday to seek loans and investment, Reuters reported, and is expected to visit Russia on the way home to discuss another financial aid package. Russian officials have said Ukraine, which relies on Moscow for its energy supplies, would receive favorable prices on gas if it moved away from Europe.
Yanukovych’s position has looked increasingly untenable in recent days as the political crisis has deepened already major concerns over Ukraine’s economy. The country needs to repay $15.3 billion in debt and secure further loans to stay afloat, but yields on its junk-rated bonds have skyrocketed after protesters clashed with police and seized control of parts of central Kiev.