Are Ukraine's concessions too late to satisfy protesters?
The parliament voted today to roll back an anti-demonstration law that escalated tensions, and the hard-line prime minister stepped down. But protesters plan to stay put.
Moscow; and Kiev, Ukraine — As demonstrators in the street cheered, Ukraine's parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to repeal an intensely unpopular law passed just two weeks ago that placed severe curbs on public protests.
Earlier, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, widely perceived as a hard-liner in the confrontation between the government of President Viktor Yanukovych and pro-European protesters who have occupied Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, for the past two months, tendered his resignation "for the good of the country."
But both experts and opposition figures warn that the sweeping concessions from an embattled Mr. Yanukovych are probably too little, too late.
"We are sure that the struggle will continue. We have made only one step.... We have not yet settled everything," boxing champion-turned-opposition politician Vitali Klitschko told cheering supporters on the Maidan after the parliamentary vote. "We have to change not only the government but the rules of the game as well," he added.
Protesters say they are not likely to leave the streets, but will continue pressing for fulfillment of their other demands, which include a full amnesty for all those arrested over the past two months, punishment of police officers and politicians guilty of carrying out the crackdown against demonstrators, and, many say, the resignation of the president and government followed by emergency elections to replace them.
The protests began in late November after the Yanukovych government abruptly declined to sign a long-planned economic association agreement with the European Union and elected instead to bolster economic relations with Russia. Demonstrators occupied the Maidan and, despite the ups and downs, have not left since. In mid-January the demonstrators were boosted by the passage of the antiprotest law, which appeared to give police the authority to clear them away from public spaces. Last week things turned more violent than Ukraine has seen in recent years, as radical protesters battled police with iron bars, rocks, and Molotov cocktails while police responded with deadly force. At least three activists died in the tumult.
"The [occupation of the] Maidan will continue," says Pavlo Movchan, a former deputy with the parliamentary faction led by imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. "The steps made so far haven't changed anything. The murderers have not been punished, and the Maidan cannot forgive this."
On the streets
In Independence Square, a stage has been set up and a constant stream of entertainers, religious figures, and man-off-the-street speakers file through to offer entertainment to the steady crowd of protesters. A sea of tents are spread out around the stage and people shuffle back and forth to food distribution centers to claim plastic cups filled with tea, coffee, or soup. "Glory to Ukraine" has now become an appropriate greeting in place of "hello."
The protesters are not all necessarily loyal to one opposition party, but rather represent a wide-ranging group of Ukrainians that are frustrated by what they see as rampant corruption in the government.
On Tuesday, after parliament's special session, protester Aleksandr Moroz stood guard outside a tent parked in the middle of Khreshchatyk Street, a main thoroughfare off Independence Square. The khaki-beige tent has served as a makeshift home for protesters from the eastern Ukrainian region of Dnepropetrovsk.
Mr. Moroz arrived in Kiev at the end of November, and says he has no intention of going home anytime soon.
When asked what he's waiting for, Moroz rattles off the protesters' demands: Yanukovych's resignation and snap elections. Today's decision to repeal the antiprotest law is a step in the right direction, he says, but it's not good enough. "This will only end when Ukraine gets a new government."
Farther along Khreshchatyk Street, another protester, Genadi Chemov, is standing between a high-end hotel – still open for business – and a 10-foot barricade made of snow, ice, and other debris chiseled off Kiev's brick streets. Mr. Chemov, like Moroz, was unimpressed by Tuesday's special parliamentary session.
Chemov, a Kiev resident, says he is fed up with the endemic government corruption and usually comes to the protests once a day and sometimes stays for up to six hours before going home.
As he warms his hands by a wood fire, Chemov explains that Mr. Azarov's resignation is just symbolic. "It's the president who needs to be held accountable." Until Yanukovych leaves power, there's no way that the Euromaidan protests will go home, he says.
'Parliament no longer has any influence'
In a statement to the Rada, Ukraine's single-chamber parliament, Azarov said he hoped his departure would encourage wider compromise.
"The acute and dangerous conflict for our people, for the fate of Ukraine, demands further responsible steps," Azarov said. "In order to create additional opportunities for social and political compromise, for the peaceful settlement of conflict, I have taken a personal decision to ask the president of Ukraine to accept my resignation."
Ukrainian media reported that Serhiy Arbuzov, the deputy prime minister and a former central banker who's reputedly close to the Yanukovych family, will take over as acting prime minister until the government crisis is resolved.
Under Ukraine's Constitution, dismissal of the prime minister automatically dissolves the government. On Sunday, Yanukovych offered the post to opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk, while Mr. Klitschko was to be made a deputy prime minister. They have not accepted the offer, and some officials of the Yanukovych government may yet decide that enough concessions have been made to the crowd, and that harsh measures to restore public order may be needed.
But experts warn that historically, once a government starts making concessions, it is more likely to inflame revolution than placate its opposition.
"I do not see any signs that the situation can be improved or that compromise can be reached," says Sergei Gaiday, a political scientist who runs the Kiev-based "social engineering" agency Gaiday.com. "What is happening in parliament no longer has any influence on what is going on out in the streets. The protesters have too many demands, and these are not being met."