By Sergei L. Loiko
3:20 AM PST, January 30, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has taken a sick leave amid the nation's political crisis.
“Ukraine's president is on a sick leave in connection with an acute respiratory disease accompanied by high fever,” Alexander Orda, the presidential staff's deputy health chief, said in a statement posted on Yanukovich's official website Thursday morning.
The announcement came a day after Yanukovich compelled parliament to sign a conditional amnesty for more than 100 detained participants in protests that started over two months ago when Yanukovich refrained from signing an association and trade deal with the European Union.
The protests were predominantly peaceful until mid-January, when Yanukovich endorsed a number of controversial laws curbing rights to assembly and free speech. That move set off a fierce confrontation between thousands of protesters and riot police in central Kiev.
The conflict raged for most of last week and left at least four protesters dead, hundreds injured on both sides and dozens of protesters detained in Kiev and elsewhere in the country.
Protesters also clashed with police and captured key government and municipal buildings in more than a dozen regional centers across Ukraine.
The detained protesters could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison for mass rioting. The new laws, which only added fuel to the fires of popular unrest, were canceled by parliament Tuesday after the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
Both steps were part of a compromise between Yanukovich and the opposition leaders to prevent further fighting, which has already turned Grushevsky Street in central Kiev into a battlefield with carcasses of burned police buses still used by protesters as barricades.
The amnesty hinges on the return of all captured government premises within 15 days.
The protesters insisted on immediate and unconditional amnesty. When parliament, which is controlled by Yanukovich's allies, adopted the conditional amnesty late Wednesday, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said the law would only aggravate the tense situation.
"Regretfully, the decision adopted by parliament will add heat to the [confrontation] in society instead of cooling it off, " Klitschko told reporters after Wednesday's session.
Some analysts noted that while Yanukovich's illness may give both sides time to regroup, it could be more beneficial to the president, who has seemingly been cornered by the opposition's mounting pressure.
“Yanukovich's disease, whatever it is, most likely is connected with the accumulated stress of recent weeks full of confrontation and violence,” Igor Rogov, president of Politika Analytical Center, a Kiev-based think tank, said in a phone interview. “The news primarily means that Yanukovich will not be for some time available to continue negotiations with the opposition and meet with concerned foreign visitors. In a sense, time is playing for the president given that temperatures in Kiev fell this week to minus 22 to [minus] 30, which makes the physical presence of protesters in the streets an increasing challenge."
The opposition continues to demand early elections for the presidency and parliament as the key condition for ending street protests.
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