KIEV, Ukraine — Protesters left Ukraine’s justice ministry today — after their storming of the building during the night led the minister to threaten to call for a state of emergency — but continued to picket outside as they press for the president’s resignation and other concessions.
The protesters still occupy three sizable buildings in downtown Kiev, including the city hall.
Justice Minister Elena Lukash said early today that she would ask the national security council to impose a state of emergency if the protesters didn’t quit the building. But she did not specify a deadline for leaving and it was not clear if the move outside would satisfy her.
Imposing a state of emergency likely would cause anger to spike among protesters, who have clashed with police repeatedly over the past week. Three protesters have died.
Lukash, in a televised statement, noted that the “so-called protesters” seized the building as ministry employees were working on measures to grant amnesty to protesters and to make changes in the constitution to return the country to a system where the prime minister’s powers are stronger.
Beleaguered President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday offered the prime minister’s post to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition’s most prominent leaders. Yatsenyuk, while not flatly rejecting the offer, said protests would continue and that a special session of parliament called for Tuesday would be “judgment day.”
It’s not clear if constitutional changes will be on the agenda for that session, but granting more power to the prime minister could both sweeten the offer and allow Yanukovych to portray himself as seeking genuine compromise.
The prospect of a state of emergency comes after other official statements suggesting the government is considering forceful moves against the protesters in the wake of the violent clashes between demonstrators and police over the past week. Three protesters died in the clashes, two of them after being shot and the third of unspecified injuries. Authorities have said police do not carry the sort of weapons that allegedly killed the two men who were shot.
Interior Minister Vitali Zakharchenko, one of the ministers most despised by the protesters, on Saturday warned that demonstrators occupying buildings would be considered extremists and that force would be used against them if necessary. He also claimed demonstrators had seized two policemen and tortured them before letting them go, which the opposition denied and called a ruse to justify a crackdown.
The protests began in late November when Yanukovych shelved a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union and sought more support from Russia. The demonstrations grew in size and intensity after police violently dispersed two gatherings. Demonstrators then set up a large tent camp on downtown Kiev’s main square.
Anger boiled over into clashes on Jan. 19, days after Yanukovych pushed through harsh new anti-protest laws. Protests also spread into other parts of the country, including to some cities in the Russian-speaking east, the base of Yanukovych’s support.