Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returned to work yesterday from four days of sick leave after opposition leaders demanded he accept curbs on his power and appealed for Western aid.
As he recovers from an “acute respiratory infection” that critics dismissed as a ploy to win time, the president has to choose between making further concessions to the pro-EU protest movement or clamp down after two months of protests.
Following talks with top Western officials, including US Secretary of State John Kerry and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton in Munich over the weekend, opposition leaders, including boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko, have urged the West to mediate in talks with Yanukovych.
Convening tens of thousands for a new rally at Kiev’s barricaded tent city on Independence Square amid freezing temperatures on Sunday, the protest leaders also requested “real financial aid.”
Former Ukrainian minister of economy Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who turned down Yanukovych’s proposal to serve as prime minister, said Western officials had assured him that funding was on its way.
“They are ready to do it,” he told the crowd.
Ashton told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published on Sunday that Western countries were considering a financial package for Ukraine that “won’t be small.”
She said the plan would depend on the Ukrainian government’s willingness to pursue economic and political reforms.
Yatsenyuk has said Ukraine, which is mired in deep economic trouble, needs a “Marshall Plan” from the West, referring to the Cold-War initiative which saw the US help rebuild Europe after World War II to prevent the spread of communism.
Russia has expressed fury over what it calls foreign interference in its Soviet-era satellite’s domestic affairs. Russia in December last year pledged a US$15 billion bailout package and gas supplies discounts for Kiev.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week the financing was on hold pending the formation of a new government in Ukraine following the resignation of Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarov.
The Kremlin has publicly supported Yanukovych, dismissing the protesters as far-right extremists, antagonizing protesters further.
“Moscow is waiting for the right moment to organize a Ukraine split and destroy the country’s territorial integrity,” nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party leader Oleg Tyagnybok told the rally on Sunday.
Over the past few weeks, the protests have expanded beyond the capital and the traditionally pro-opposition western Ukraine into pro-Yanukovych, Russian-speaking central and eastern parts. The opposition began a new series of pickets across the country from yesterday.
Ukraine’s worst political crisis since its 1991 independence, which has pitted Russia against the West, broke out after Yanukovych ditched a key pact with the EU in November last year. The protest movement has recently radicalized and turned into a drive to oust the 63-year-old leader. The opposition leaders fear Yanukovych may introduce a state of emergency and move the army against demonstrators.
The opposition claims beatings and abuse of protesters are widespread. A prominent Ukrainian protester, whose account of torture has shocked Europe, left Ukraine for treatment in Lithuania on Sunday.