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Ukraine scraps protest laws as PM steps down

Parliament repeals legislation and PM and government quit in moves opposition says are "small steps to victory".

Last updated: 29 Jan 2014 04:23
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Ukraine's parliament has scrapped draconian anti-protest laws and its prime minister and his entire cabinet have resigned, in moves aimed at ending a two-month standoff with demonstrators.

The decision on the protest laws was made in a special parliamentary session in Kiev on Tuesday, shortly before which the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, offered to stand down in a bid to ease tensions between protesters and the government.

Azarov's, who's resignation was accepted by the president, will be replaced in an interim capacity by deputy prime minister Sergiy Arbuzov, a fellow Yanukovych loyalist, while other ministers will stay on until a new cabinet is named.

It was not clear who would succeed Azarov as prime minister, although some analysts floated the idea that a pro-opposition tycoon, Petro Poroshenko, might step into the post.

Opposition leaders, who have called for the removal of the president, described the moves as "a step to victory".

Al Jazeera's Nick Spicer, reporting from Kiev, said the prime minister was regarded as responsible for much of the violence during the crackdown on protesters.

"The prime minister was despised by the people on the streets. He was seen as responsible for the crackdowns," he said.

"The opposition said this was a small step. A big step would be the resignation of the president."

Tough laws

The anti-protest laws, which restricted movement and assembly, and threatened tough jail terms for transgressors, had been passed earlier this month as demonstrations against Yanukovich continued unabated for two months.

This is not victory but a step to victory.

Vitaly Klitschko, opposition leader

Originally the protests were over the government's failure to sign an EU trade deal, but the anti-protest laws added another level to the demonstrations.

The laws punished the occupation of public buildings with up to five years in prison, outlawed protest convoys of more than five cars and banned opposition activists from wearing masks or helmets.

Protesters had also started receiving text messages saying they were registered as taking place in mass disturbance.

The president hopes their repeal, and the resignation of Azarov, will put an end to the escalating violence that saw the protests turn deadly last week. 

Dmitri Sidorinko, an anti-government activist from the city of Kharkiv, told Al Jazeera that protesters would stay in the streets until the president resigned.

"We will be here until the end, until the victory," he said. "If nothing is done from the government side, then we will resort to decisive action. 

"In the last seven years, nothing has changed in our country for the better. Do you think people would come out in the street to protest if we had everything alright in the country? I don't think so."

'Step to victory'

Azarov said he was offering to step down "with the aim of creating extra means for finding a social-political compromise, for the sake of a peaceful settlement of the conflict."

But in reality he had been publicly humiliated by Yanukovich's offer at the weekend to give his job to former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition's leaders, in an effort to stem the rising protests against his rule. Yatsenyuk turned the offer down.

Al Jazeera's Nick Spicer updates on the situation in Kiev

The opposition has been calling for the resignation of the Azarov government since the onset of the crisis.

Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko said Azarov's announcement was only "a step to victory".

"For several months we have been saying that what is happening in the streets is also the result of the policies of the current government. This is not victory but a step to victory," said Klitschko, leader of the UDAR (Punch) party.

The president stopped short of proposing amnesty for dozens of arrested protesters until demonstrators stopped occupying buildings and ended their protests, a major sticking point for Tuesday's talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday rejected all foreign interference in the country, saying visits by overseas envoys were adding to the unrest in the former Soviet republic.

"I think that the more intermediaries there are, the more problems there are," Putin told a press conference in Brussels after a summit with top European Union officials. "At the very least, Russia will never interfere."

Meanwhile, government supporters gathered outside the parliament in Kiev.

"There is no situation that is not possible to solve by negotiations," Oleh Kalashnikov, leader of the Combined Arms Union of Ukraine, told the rally. "Our mission today is to stop people who want the coup. 

"Your support enables the government to rule the country effectively. Stability in the country, the future of your children depends on you. We're against the coup! We will win if we stick together," he added.

With additional reporting by  Tamila Varshalomidze  in Kiev

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Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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