KIEV - Ukraine’s government survived a no-confidence vote Tuesday after the prime minister apologised for a police crackdown on protests, while demonstrators massed outside parliament protesting the ex-Soviet state’s rejection of a historic EU pact.
“On behalf of our government, I would like to apologise for the actions of our law enforcement authorities” who, on the weekend, fired smoke bombs and stun grenades in clashes with demonstrators in the capital, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said. Azarov also promised the emergency session of parliament that he would reshuffle his cabinet. “I can guarantee lawmakers one thing - I will draw firm conclusions from what happened and make serious personnel changes in the government,” he told the chamber, speaking in Russian. Following his mea culpa, the opposition’s no confidence motion against the government failed, gathering only 186 of the 226 votes required to pass in the parliament dominated by the ruling party.
Outside the building, some 5,000 protesters rallied, calling for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych amid a heavy presence of riot police. Around 1,000 pro-Yunukovych supporters rallied nearby surrounded by police. The co-confidence measure was seen as a way to channel the protesters’ anger after a police crackdown on weekend demonstrations in which more than 100,000 people turned out in Kiev - the largest protest since the pro-democracy 2004 Orange Revolution.
There had been little prospect of the motion passing, however, because Yanukovych’s ruling Regions Party dominates the 450-seat parliament. Although the violence had subsided, there was no let-up in demonstrators’ demands that Yanukovych resign over his failure to sign key free trade agreements.
with the EU at a summit in Vilnius on Friday.
Speaking in a television interview late Monday, Yanukovych defended his decision to walk away from the deal. “What kind of an agreement is that when they take and bend us over?” he asked.
He conceded that police “went too far” in the weekend clashes, but claimed that they “were provoked by something”.
The EU had set the release of Yanukovych’s top rival Yulia Tymoshenko - who in 2011 was sentenced to seven years on abuse-of-power charges - as a key condition for signing the deal with Ukraine. She remains imprisoned.
Yanukovych was not in Ukraine for the no-confidence vote Tuesday afternoon, having left on a three-day trip to China. The abandonment of the EU pact has energised the opposition.
“Millions of Ukrainians have lost their faith in the future because of you,” former economy minister turned opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk told pro-Yanukovych lawmakers in parliament.
“You face historic responsibility for this,” added ultra-nationalist leader Oleh Tyahnybok. “The situation is catastrophic, both politically and economically.”
Opposition leaders including former heavyweight world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko say the government betrayed the Ukrainian people by scrapping plans to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union under pressure from Russia.
They hope to turn Ukrainians’ anger over corruption and economic woes into what they have called a new “revolution”.
But economists say a new political crisis could exacerbate the economic troubles.
“With the economy already in recession and suffering from strains in the balance of payments, prolonged political instability could tip Ukraine into a crisis,” the consultancy Capital Economics said.
The Ukrainian government and Russia have sought to undermine the image of the protests being pro-democracy and representative of the Ukrainian people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to pull Ukraine into a Moscow-led customs union, said late Monday that protests “seem more like a pogrom than a revolution”.
“These actions were prepared from outside. We see how well-organised groups of fighters are involved,” Putin said.
Azarov on Monday had said the situation bore all the hallmarks of a “coup d’etat”.
The United States and France challenged that statement. “We certainly don’t consider peaceful demonstrations coup attempts,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney in Washington.
“This is not a coup d’etat. I haven’t seen a military intervention and the characteristics of a coup d’etat are not supported,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday told Radio France Internationale in Paris.