Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych announced on Thursday that he was taking 'indefinite' sick leave on Thursday amid ongoing clashes between riot police and antigovernment demonstrators- the biggest domestic turmoil in the former Soviet republic since the 2005 'Orange Revolution'.
The official line is that the 63-year-old Yanukovych has an acute respiratory illness and a high fever.
But the opposition isn’t buying it. Some say he is looking for an excuse to avoid further discussions with opposition leaders, which have done nothing to resolve the tensions.
Vitali Klitschko, a leading opposition figure, has a more ominous theory — the president could be pretending to take himself out of action in preparation for imposing a state of emergency. That has been a persistent worry of the opposition since violent clashes two weeks ago killed three protesters.
‘‘I remember from the Soviet Union it’s a bad sign — a bad sign because always if some Soviet Union leaders have to make an unpopular decision, they go to the hospital,’’ Klitschko said.
Yanukovych has faced two months of major protests that sometimes paralyze central Kiev and have spread to other cities. The protests started after he backed out of a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of Russia, but quickly came to encompass a wide array of discontent over corruption, heavy-handed police and dubious courts.
The protests escalated in mid-January when Yanukovych signed a series of strict anti-protest measures into law, but the president agreed to scrap the anti-protest laws of Jan 16th earlier this week.
The antigovernment demonstrators see the current government's rebuff of closer ties to the European Union as a sign that the Ukraine is falling back under the Kremlin's sphere of influence. During Soviet times, millions of Ukrainian were killed in an engineered famine under Josef Stalin and the northernmost part of the nation was irradiated with the 1986 explosion and meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The protests aren't limited to the capital of Kiev- protestors are occupying regional government office buildings in the western part of the Ukraine and have even forced the resignation of Lviv's governor Oleg Salo.
At least four demonstrators have been killed in the ongoing protests in Kiev this month. Reports are circulating that riot police have been firing lethal munitions at some demonstrators, including buckshot and a sabot round designed to stop vehicles. European officials fear that the ongoing clashes could escalate to a full blown civil war within the Ukraine.