Ukrainian President Goes on Sick Leave

Viktor F. Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, went on sick leave on Thursday, leaving negotiated efforts to resolve the country’s political crisis hanging in abeyance.

A statement on the president’s website said Mr. Yanukovych was taking time off because of a respiratory illness and fever. It offered no indication of how long he was expected to be absent. The statement cited a deputy director of the presidential administration responsible for medical affairs.

Mr. Yanukovych has faced pressure from Russia to take a harder line with protesters opposing his government, rather than continue negotiations that could lead to his ceding some power to pro-Western members of the opposition.

Mr. Yanukovych went on leave without signing into law the repeal of harsh restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly that were enacted earlier this month. The repeal was passed by the Parliament on Tuesday with support from the pro-government Party of Regions, a significant concession to the opposition but one that means little unless the president signs it.

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Protesters remained in Independence Square in Kiev on Thursday. Maxim Shipenkov/European Pressphoto Agency

The developments followed negotiations in Parliament between opposition leaders and the government over concessions, and protesters’ vacating one of the government buildings they had occupied, belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture. The prime minister, Mykola Azarov, resigned on Tuesday.

There were signs late on Wednesday that negotiations were unraveling. The pro-government Party of Regions passed a version of an amnesty law for protesters that lacked support from opposition lawmakers. It stipulated that the amnesty would not take effect until the prosecutor general certified that protesters had vacated all occupied administrative buildings, including provincial capitols that were seized last week, and it set a 15-day deadline, requiring police action after that to clear the buildings.

Mr. Yanukovych was still at work on Wednesday evening, attending a Party of Regions caucus meeting, though at least one report indicated that he was “pale” and said he felt sick, adding credence to the report on Thursday of his illness.

Attendees at the meeting said he told lawmakers that if they did not vote for the amnesty law, he would schedule a televised address to the nation, a phrase which some interpreted as a threat to declare a state of emergency.

Russia said on Wednesday that it was halting financial aid that has helped Ukraine avoid defaulting on its foreign debts, and would resume the aid only after a new government is formed. The Russian step was a signal of displeasure with the negotiations in Ukraine to resolve the crisis by bringing the pro-Western opposition into a coalition government to replace Mr. Azarov’s cabinet, which was dismissed when he resigned.

The statement on the president’s website Thursday morning said that Mr. Yanukovych, 63, “is going on sick leave because of acute respiratory illness accompanied by a high temperature.”

There was no immediate reaction from the opposition politicians who had led the negotiations with Mr. Yanukovych.

Under the Constitution, if the president is incapacitated or dies, the prime minister serves as acting head of state. After Mr. Azarov resigned, Serhei Arbuzov became acting prime minister; both men are political allies of Mr. Yanukovych. There was no indication on Thursday that Mr. Yanukovych intended to hand over authority to Mr. Arbuzov, even temporarily, because of the illness.

One Ukrainian opposition journalist, Vitaly Portnikov, suggested in a Facebook posting that the sick-leave announcement indicated that Mr. Yanukovych had lost power to a hard-line faction in his government.

“I don’t remember official statements of Viktor Yanukovych having colds,” Mr. Portnikov wrote. “But I remember well that on the 19th of August, 1991” — the date of a short-lived coup d’état in Moscow — “the vice president of the U.S.S.R., Gennady Yanayev, announced a serious illness of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev.”

Source:  The New York Times

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