Updated – 10:50 a.m., ET
KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov offered his resignation ahead of an extraordinary session of parliament, expected to play a decisive role in the troubled post-Soviet country's spiraling political crisis.
In a statement posted on the government website Tuesday, Azarov wrote that he had asked President Viktor Yanukovych to accept his resignation "in order to create additional possibilities for socio-political compromise [and] to deal with the conflict peacefully.
"Today the most important thing is to preserve the unity and integrity of Ukraine. That is far more important than anyone's personal plans or ambitions," Azarov added. "And that is exactly why I have taken this decision."
Yanukovych issued a decree on his website Thursday afternoon accepting Azarov's resignation. Under Ukraine's constitution, the entire government must resign alongside the prime minister, but will remain in office for up to 60 days until a new one is formed. Azarov's spokesman told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency that first deputy prime minister Sergei Arbuzov would replace him, starting tomorrow. Speculation has focused on Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate and oppositionist former foreign minister, as a potential compromise caretaker prime minister.
Ukraine's opposition welcomed the news cautiously. Vitaly Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion and one of the three political leaders who have been negotiating with Yanukovych over a compromise for the last few days, said Azarov's resignation was "a step towards victory for the opposition, but not yet a victory," Ukrainian media reported.
The opposition had earlier declined an offer that would have appointed Arseny Yatsenyuk — leader of the largest parliamentary opposition party — prime minister, and Klitschko — the most popular leader — one of his deputies. Yanukovych also offered to fire Azarov and Oleh Tyahnibok, leader of the nationalist party Svoboda.
Azarov's government had been expected to face a no-confidence vote Tuesday, an extraordinary session of parliament called to solve the increasingly violent and chaotic crisis gripping the country since late November, when Yanukovych's U-turn from Europe to Russia and police brutality sparked the biggest protests since 2004's Orange Revolution. Huge crowds occupied Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, and were mostly peacefully until far-right radical groups began fighting riot police last week. At least four protesters died last week during the clashes. Several hundred more were injured.
Parliament voted Tuesday, however, to overturn a series of Russian-inspired repressive laws passed in violation of protocol earlier this month after Yanukovych reached a compromise with the opposition Monday evening. Three-hundred and sixty-one lawmakers voted to strike the laws off the books, with only two against and Communist Party lawmakers abstaining. Those laws effectively banned all forms of public protest in Ukraine, absolved officials from responsibility for the street violence and placed draconian limits on freedom of speech.
The laws, which critics said amounted to establishing "dictatorship" in Ukraine, revived popular anger that led to the violent clashes. The concessions are seen as vital to appease protesters on the square, who have booed the opposition leaders in recent days for their perceived lack of political accomplishments and say they will continue to take to the streets until Yanukovych is out of office.
By Tuesday afternoon, protesters remained unwilling to retreat from the barricades they set up around the Maidan or the government buildings they occupied last month. Several set about fortifying the barricades on adjoining Grushevskogo Street, which went up after the violence broke out last week. Alexey Paruby, a member of parliament and protest "commander," told the independent Ukrainska Pravda newspaper that the encampments and occupations would remain until Yanukovych's allies "vacated government buildings."
Fears Yanukovych would declare a state of emergency, tantamount to martial law, have skyrocketed in recent days since Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko said, "Attempts to solve the conflict peacefully, without recourse to a confrontation of force, remain futile." Justice Minister Olena Lukash threatened Sunday to ask the government to declare a state of emergency, but then claimed Tuesday that the issue had not yet been discussed.
Rumors that Russia, which bailed out Yanukovych with a last-minute $15 billion loan and gas discount in December, would intervene to keep Ukraine in the Kremlin's fold and out of the West's — even going as far as sending troops to help the government bloodily quell the conflict — have persisted here as the unrest spreads. The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed senior Russian official saying that the terms of the loan, which have not been made public, would have to be reconsidered if Yanukovych accepted Azarov's resignation. "There is no decision yet, but it is self-evident," the official was quoted as saying.
Putin later said Tuesday, however, that Russia had loaned Ukraine the money out of "the need and desire not to support some specific government or other, but the Ukrainian people," Russian state media reported. Putin added that Ukraine had asked Russia to delay repayments on the gas, including the cut-price gas from the December deal, but said that the agreement would remain in place despite the change of government. Shortly after Putin's comments, Russian deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov, one of the Kremlin's most senior economic figures, told Russian wires that the loan would not be withdrawn as long as Ukraine stuck to its conditions.
Putin went on to issue an implicit warning to European nations against attempting to regulate the conflict. "Too many cooks spoil the broth," Putin said. "I think the Ukrainian people are capable of handling it themselves. In any case, Russia won't interfere," he added.
European officials have proved unwilling to play a zero-sum game with the Kremlin for Ukraine's future or provide it with the financial aid the country's moribund economy desperately needs to stave off default. The conflict has further soured relations between Russia and the EU, each of whom has accused the other of interfering in Ukraine's sovereign affairs. The EU scrapped most of the Brussels summit, originally planned to last two days, including the official dinner in Putin's honor, to show him that things were "not business as usual" earlier this month.
Over the last few days, anti-government protesters have seized power in eight provinces and attempted to in four others.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
Contact Max Seddon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cate Sevilla is the UK managing editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
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