Ukraine lawmakers offer protesters amnesty, with conditions

Measure passed in parliament is contingent on demonstrators vacating the buildings being occupied in Kiev

Members of the ruling Regions party celebrate at the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Wednesday as they adopted a law that would grant amnesty to protesters arrested during the country's crisis.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine's parliament has passed a measure offering amnesty to arrested protesters but only if demonstrators vacate most of the buildings they are occupying.

The measure, passed Wednesday after nearly 12 hours of negotiation, was not supported by the opposition parties driving the two months of protests that pushed the country into crisis after President Viktor Yanukovich walked away from a treaty with the European Union.

Protesters occupy at least three buildings in the Ukrainian capital Kiev which they use as dormitories and operation centers, and are key support facilities for the extensive protest tent camp on the city's main square.

With temperatures dropping as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit during the night, continuing the protests without places to shelter would be virtually impossible.

Along with the logistical issues, the amnesty offer is likely to offend protesters because they regard it as fundamentally illegitimate in the first place, and the authorities are showing no sign of addressing any of the issues at the heart of the protests.

Viktor Chumak of the opposition party Udar said Wednesday that 328 people have been arrested in the course of the protests and "are hostages of the authorities," the Interfax news agency reported.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin increased pressure on Ukraine Wednesday, saying Russia would wait until it forms a new government before fully implementing a $15 billion bailout deal that Kiev urgently needs. 

Putin agreed to the aid package with Ukraine in December, throwing the ex-Soviet state a lifeline in what the opposition and the West regarded as a reward for scrapping plans to sign political and trade deals with the EU and promising to improve ties with Russia. 

Putin repeated a promise to honor the lifeline agreement with Ukraine in full, but left open the timing of the next aid installment as Kiev struggles to calm more than two months of turmoil.

After Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday, hoping to appease the opposition and street protesters, Russia tightened border checks on imports from Ukraine in what looked like a reminder to Yanukovich not to install a government that tilts policy back towards the West. 

Ukraine's new interim prime minister promised to try to limit the economic damage inflicted by the sometimes violent street protests, and said he expected Russia to disburse a further $2 billion aid installment "very soon." 

Putin had less of a sense of urgency, saying "I would ask the (Russian) government to fulfill all our financial agreements in full," he said, repeating a promise made on Tuesday after the government resigned in Kiev. 

However, Putin signaled that the latest installment was on hold in remarks he made during a meeting with senior government officials, extracts of which were broadcast later on Russian TV. 

"Let's wait for the formation of a Ukrainian government," he said, before telling the meeting: "But I ask you, even in the current situation, not to lose contact with our (Ukrainian) colleagues."

The worried West

In the West, officials are growing more and more concerned about the crisis unfolding in the Ukraine. German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned Putin and Yanukovich on Wednesday, urging a constructive dialogue between the government and opposition in Kiev. 

"The situation must not be allowed to spiral again into violence," a German government spokesman quoted Merkel as saying. 

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was more forthright, blaming Russia for Kiev's failure to sign the EU deals. 

"An association pact with Ukraine would have been a major boost to Euro-Atlantic security, I truly regret that it could not be done," he told the French newspaper le Figaro. "The reason is well-known: pressure that Russia exerts on Kiev." 

Ukraine badly needs the Russian money. Figures compiled by UniCredit bank before the bailout put its gross external financing requirements at $3.8 billion in the first three months of this year alone, including $2.29 billion for gas which is covered by the deal with Moscow. 

That rises to $5.5 billion in April-June, including repaying a $1 billion bond which matures then. Altogether the government would need $17.44 billion this year to pay its foreign bills, including for Russian gas. 

The EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called for sincere discussion during Ukraine's crisis. 

"The dialogue which has happened from time to time needs to become a real dialogue. We hope to see real progress in these coming days. Time is really of the essence," Ashton said after meeting Yanukovich. 

Wire services 

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