The 66-year-old Azarov announced his decision as parliament met
for an emergency session to work out possible concessions to the
opposition to end street protests in the capital Kiev and in other
cities in which six people have been killed.
Azarov, a loyal lieutenant of Yanukovich since the latter was
elected to power in February 2010, said he was offering to step down
"with the aim of creating extra means for finding a social-political
compromise, for the sake of a peaceful settlement of the conflict."
But in reality he has been publicly humiliated by Yanukovich's offer
at the weekend to give his job to former economy minister Arseny
Yatsenyuk, one of the opposition leaders, in an effort to stem the
rising protests against his rule.
The opposition has been calling consistently for the resignation of
the Azarov government since the onset of the crisis. But opposition
leaders have shied away from the offer of top government posts by
Yanukovich, seeing it as a trap intended to compromise them in front
of their supporters on the streets.
Yatsenyuk, one of a "troika" of opposition leaders, formally turned
down the offer of the top government job on Monday night and the
question now was whether Yanukovich would accept Azarov's departure
Azarov has steered the heavily indebted economy through hard times
over four years, keeping the national currency tightly pegged to the
dollar and refusing International Monetary Fund pressure to raise
gas prices at home.
He backed the decision in November to walk away from a free trade
agreement with the European Union — the move which sparked the mass
street protests — and it was Azarov who took the heat in parliament,
defending the need for closer economic ties with Russia in a stormy
debate with the opposition.
Parliament went into emergency session on Tuesday with ministers
loyal to Yanukovich saying they would press for a state of emergency
to be declared if the opposition leaders did not rein in protesters
and end occupation of municipal and government buildings across the
Opposition leaders, who include boxer-turned-politician Vitaly
Klitschko and nationalist Oleh Tyahnibok, are also pressing for the
repeal of sweeping anti-protest laws rammed through parliament by
Yanukovich loyalists on January 16.
A government reshuffle had also been slated for discussion at the
emergency session but it was not clear now how this would proceed
given Azarov's resignation offer.
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Another battle lies ahead over protesters detained during the
unrest. The Yanukovich side said these would be pardoned, but only
once protesters had ended their occupation of public buildings and
blockade of roads.
The parliamentary session observed a moment of silence in respect of
those who had been killed in the wave of unrest and parliament
speaker Volodymyr Rybak then announced a recess.
Talk of a state of emergency being declared in the former Soviet
republic of 46 million made the European Union's foreign policy
chief, Catherine Ashton, hastily move up a visit to Kiev on Tuesday.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Yanukovich on Monday to urge
the government not to declare a state of emergency and to work with
the opposition to bring a peaceful end to unrest.
"(Biden) underscored that the U.S. condemns the use of violence by
any side, and warned that declaring a State of Emergency or enacting
other harsh security measures would further inflame the situation
and close the space for a peaceful resolution," the White House
Though the protest movement began because of Yanukovich's U-turn on
policy towards Europe, it has since turned into a mass
demonstration, punctuated by clashes with police, against perceived
misrule and corruption under Yanukovich's leadership.
Several hundred people camp round-the-clock on Kiev's Independence
Square and along an adjoining thoroughfare, while more radical
protesters confront police lines at Dynamo football stadium some
Yanukovich's Party of the Regions and its allies hold a majority in
the Ukrainian parliament but in reality pressure from the president
and his aides behind the scenes can easily swing a vote the way he
wants it to go.
(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs and Pavel Polityuk;
Richard Balmforth; editing by Anna Willard)
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