Kiev, Jan. 30 (Reuters): Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich went on sick leave on Thursday after a bruising session of Parliament, leaving a political vacuum in a country threatened with bankruptcy and destabilised by anti-government protests.
The 63-year-old President appears increasingly isolated in a crisis born of a tug-of-war between the West and Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord Russia. A former President said this week the violence between demonstrators and police had brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Shortly after his office announced he had developed a high temperature and acute respiratory ailment, Yanukovich defended his record in handling the crisis and accused the Opposition, which is demanding his resignation, of provoking the unrest.
“We have fulfilled all the obligations which the authorities took on themselves,” a presidential statement said, referring to a bill passed late on Wednesday granting a conditional amnesty for activists who had been detained. However, the Opposition continues to whip up the situation, calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders.”
The amnesty offered freedom from prosecution to peaceful protesters, but only on condition that activists left official buildings they have occupied — something they have rejected.
Several members of Yanukovich’s own party voted against the bill, even after he visited Parliament himself to rally support, and some of his powerful industrialist backers are showing signs of impatience with the two-month-old crisis.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday after a sharp escalation of the street unrest, which began in November when Yanukovich rejected a European Union deal in favour of closer ties and a bailout deal with Russia.
The President, under pressure from Moscow not to tilt policy back towards the West, has yet to appoint a successor. Serhiy Arbuzov, Azarov’s first deputy and a close family friend of Yanukovich, has stepped in as interim Prime Minister.
“The President of Ukraine has been officially registered as sick, with an acute respiratory ailment and a high temperature,” a statement on the presidential website said.
A subsequent statement gave fullsome tribute to a police officer who was found dead early on Thursday, apparently from a heart attack while on duty — an indication of how important Yanukovich regards keeping the security forces on his side.
The bare announcement on his health gave no sign of when he might be back at his desk or able to appoint a new government, which Moscow says must be in place before it goes ahead with a planned purchase of $2 billion of Ukrainian government bonds.
“Today is the first day of the illness. He has a high temperature. We are not doctors, but it is clear that a high temperature does not go down in a single day,” a presidential spokesperson said over telephone. “The doctors will do all they can so that he can recover quickly.”
Some Opposition figures said they suspected Yanukovich might be giving himself breathing space after being forced into concessions to try to calm the unrest on the streets.