Ukraine's parliament scraps anti-protest laws, Prime Minister resigns
KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) — Lawmakers in Kiev voted Tuesday to repeal sweeping anti-protest laws whose passage this month angered demonstrators and helped plunge Ukraine into political crisis.
The vote came only hours after Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced he had submitted his resignation in a bid to ease the situation.
Televised images from a special session of parliament showed that an overwhelming majority voted to overturn the legislation, with two lawmakers voting against the repeal. Communist Party lawmakers abstained from the vote.
The laws were rammed through parliament on January 16 by a show of hands by members of President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
Anger about the legislation escalated long-running anti-government protests into violent confrontations, with police and protesters fighting pitched battles in the icy streets of the capital, Kiev.
Parliament is now looking at legislation that might provide amnesty for more than 200 people arrested since the demonstrations began in late November.
Activists say they want to see wide-ranging constitutional reform and a shake-up of the Ukrainian political system.
Azarov's resignation is intended to "create more opportunities for social and political compromise for a peaceful settlement of the conflict," a statement posted on the government's website said.
That conflict "is a threat to the entire Ukrainian society and every citizen," Azarov said, adding that the government was doing all it could to prevent bloodshed.
But there is no word yet on whether Yanukovych has accepted the resignation.
And it's not clear how far Azarov's departure would go to satisfy the demands of protesters who, despite the cold and threat of violence, have massed in and around central Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, to demand Yanukovych's ouster and new elections. In recent days, protests have also spread to other cities around the country.
Klitschko: 'Stop repression'
Vitali Klitschko, leader of the opposition Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms party, or UDAR, told reporters he believed Azarov had submitted his resignation to avoid liability over the current situation.
"It is important to stop repression, which has burst out across the country by authorities when people are unreasonably thrown in jail. We must put an end to it. We will use any platform to defend the interests of people, either at a parliamentary tribune or in the streets," Klitschko said, according to his party's website.
Azarov's resignation may have been a case of jumping before he was pushed.
He was widely expected to face a vote of no confidence in his government at the special parliamentary session, and his post had already been offered to an opposition leader.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the Fatherland Party, refused Yanukovych's offer to be prime minister, but Azarov's position was made very difficult.
Speaking in parliament Tuesday, Yatsenyuk urged the President to sign the law repealing the anti-protest legislation as soon as possible, according to the official Ukrinform news agency.
"I'm asking Viktor Yanukovych to immediately sign a law for which the parliament has just voted," he said. "We have finally closed the shameful practice of voting by a show of hands and abolished those laws against which the whole of Ukraine rebelled."
State of emergency threatened
Another round of talks was held Monday between the government and the opposition as they sought a resolution to the crisis.
Justice Minister Olena Lukash said late Monday that the anti-protest laws passed on January 16 would be repealed and the protesters who occupied her ministry would receive amnesty -- as long as they cleared out of "all seized premises and roads."
Anti-government demonstrators had seized the Justice Ministry building Sunday night but cleared out Monday after Lukash threatened to impose a state of emergency.
Opposition spokeswoman Lesya Orobets warned that such a step could lead to the use of military units to suppress protests.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who is expected to arrive late Tuesday in Kiev in a bid to defuse the crisis, also urged the government not to impose a state of emergency.
The move "would trigger a further downward spiral for Ukraine, which would benefit no one," she said in a written statement late Monday.
"What is urgently needed is a genuine dialogue to build a new consensus on the way forward," Ashton said. "I hope that the Ukrainian parliament will set a clear path during tomorrow's session towards a political solution. This must include revoking the package of laws passed on 16 January."
Ashton will travel to Kiev after attending a long-planned "Russia summit" in Brussels, Belgium, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, her spokesman, Michael Mann, said Tuesday.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy are also taking part in the summit. It's expected to last about 2½ hours, shorter than originally planned, Mann said.
There have been tensions between Russia and the European Union over developments in Ukraine, with each side accusing the other of interference.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovych on Monday night to reiterate American support for "a peaceful, political solution to the crisis," the White House said.
Government offer rejected
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 a planned trade deal with the European Union and turn toward Russia instead.
The mass protests have galvanized the opposition parties challenging Yanukovych and his government.
Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, said Sunday that he had rejected the post of deputy prime minister on humanitarian issues.
His announcement was greeted by loud cheers from the crowd, but his UDAR party said it was ready to continue negotiations with the government.
CNN's Diana Magnay and journalist Victoria Butenko reported from Kiev, and CNN's Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN's Victoria Eastwood and Marie-Louise Gumuchian contributed to this report.