Ukraine lawmakers debate amnesty for protesters
KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Ukraine's lawmakers are meeting again Wednesday in a special session of Parliament to debate a possible amnesty for protesters arrested during weeks of demonstrations.
The session comes after a day of political upheaval Tuesday in which Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his Cabinet resigned and draconian anti-protest laws were annulled.
Opposition politicians and activists welcomed the concessions made -- but said they were only a small step toward the change needed.
They want to see wide-ranging constitutional reform and a shake-up of the Ukrainian political system to shift the balance of power back toward Parliament.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, or UDAR, said on his party's website that the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych would be "a logical step."
Ukraine's Parliament, or Verkhovna Rada, is considering legislation that might provide amnesty for more than 200 people arrested since the demonstrations began in late November, centered on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan.
Debate began Tuesday but was adjourned until Wednesday. "The amnesty issue is not simple and difficult negotiations continue," state news agency Ukrinform quoted Parliament's chairman, Volodymyr Rybak, as saying.
Nationalist opposition party Svoboda, or Freedom, led by Oleg Tiahnybok, said the main bone of contention is that the government insists that protesters must leave the capital's Independence Square before any amnesty law can take effect.
"The opposition, of course, cannot accept this condition," said a statement on the party's website.
Since November, anti-government demonstrations have centered on the capital's Independence Square.
"Maidan is a protest against the authorities, current injustice and corruption," Klitschko said. "People who came out to rally, must have guarantees that the situation will change. Maidan will disperse only in case authorities fulfill society demands, which is a complete change of state power."
Parliament's vote Tuesday in favor of repealing the controversial anti-protest laws, rammed through parliament on January 16 in a show of hands by members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, was overwhelming.
The legislation has still to be signed off by Yanukovych.
Anger about the controversial anti-protest laws escalated the long-running protests into violent confrontations in the capital, with police and protesters fighting pitched battles among burning tires and barricades.
The legislation also prompted concern in the European Union and United States, who condemned what appeared to be an attempt to limit freedom of speech and the right to protest.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Kiev late Tuesday and is expected to make a statement on the situation Wednesday.
Yanukovych met Tuesday with European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule.
Vying for influence
Under Ukrainian law, Azarov's resignation triggered the resignation of his government with him.
But he and his Cabinet will continue in their roles until a new government is formed, a notice on the presidential website said.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the opposition Fatherland party, refused an offer from Yanukovych over the weekend to be prime minister.
Klitschko also turned down an offer to be Vice Prime Minister of humanitarian affairs.
Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, is home to 45 million people. The clashes over the past 10 days are an escalation of weeks of largely peaceful public protests prompted by Yanukovych's decision in November to spurn the planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead.
He and Putin agreed a $15 billion deal for Russia to buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price of natural gas.
Putin has denied that Moscow is exerting undue influence in Ukraine.
Speaking after a summit Tuesday with senior EU figures in Belgium, Putin said, "Russia has always respected, is respecting and will respect the sovereign rights of all the international entities including new states that emerged after breakdown of the Soviet Union."
Putin also said Russia would stick to the loan and energy commitments to Ukraine -- agreed in December -- even if the opposition comes to power.
CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in Kiev and Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev.