TOPICS > World

Opposition leaders rebuff Ukraine president’s olive branch

January 26, 2014 at 9:14 PM EDT
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych offered Friday to name a top opposition leader to the prime minister post, but growing unrest and a potential for increased violence continues in the former Soviet state. What does the opposition ultimately want?

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about the situation in the Ukraine we are joined now via Skype from Kiev by David Herszenhorn, he’s covering the story there for the New York Times. So last night on the program we said the President had extended an olive branch to the opposition by offering to make one of them prime minister, but that didn’t work.

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, they rebuffed this deal offered by Viktor Yanukovych who is increasingly on the defensive, there is no question. There are protests now spreading to the south and the eastern parts of Ukraine. These are Viktor Yanukovych’s base of support, the parts of the country that are absolutely most sympathetic to his pro-Russia policies. So what we’ve seen is now an indication that unrest will spread, there’s a danger of violence getting worse as the opposition leadership holds out for an even bigger victory in the days ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And just to back up a couple of steps for people, what’s this all been about? Two months ago there was the possibility of the Ukraine having closer ties with the EU, but then that changed.

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Sure, it began with a broken promise essentially. President Yanukovych had said for quite a long time that he would sign sweeping political and free trade agreements with the European Union. Toward the end of November he backed away from those deals and that set off the first round of protests. But it’s become a much deeper, more complicated situation. Those protests were inflamed by a violent police crackdown on Nov. 30 on peaceful protesters in Kiev. That set off a whole different round of demonstrations. And then they were further inflamed again on Jan. 16 when Yanukovych supporters in parliament ran through a package of legislation that severely restricts political dissent, free speech, freedom of assembly, imposes all sorts of penalties and restrictions there. Now in recent days what we’ve seen is things have turned violent, evidence of kidnappings and other abuse, either by authorities or by their surrogates, which has raised public anger even more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what does the opposition ultimately want? What would they be satisfied with?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well there are many people on the street who say that nothing short of Yanukovych’s resignation will do. He has not offered that by any means. There doesn’t seem to be any way to impeach him given that his party controls the parliament at this time. Absent that, folks are looking for sweeping changes in the government, certainly a reversal of these new laws that restrict political dissent. But it will be an interesting question in the days ahead of how much more he’s willing to concede.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how much maneuvering room does he have given Russia’s opposition?

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Well, Ukraine’s been facing a severe economic crisis, that was part of what was behind the deals with the EU, and part of his resistance was that the International Monetary Fund was demanding that, in exchange for help, he make what would be some politically difficult austerity moves. Russia, hoping to continue its influence in Ukraine stepped in, as you know, President Putin with $15 billion in aid. So Russia actually now has a lot of money on the line and they’re certainly concerned in the Kremlin about this unrest, about what this means for Russia’s investment in Ukraine’s future. That’s a big part of how this will all play out.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Herszenhorn covering the story for the New York Times joining us via Skype from Kiev. Thanks so much.