Elected councils for regions, rights for Russian speakers

Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders have vowed to devolve power to the regions and to guarantee language rights to Russian speakers under a broad constitutional reform.

In a joint TV address to the nation, Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk laid out their plans for implementing the agreements to defuse the Ukraine crisis reached in Geneva on Thursday by the Foreign Ministers of Russia, the United States, the European Union and Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian government is ready for full-fledged constitutional reform, which will secure powers of the regions, abolish regional and district state administrations and allow people to elect instead respective councils and executive committees,” said Mr. Yatsenyuk.

The amended Constitution will also “accord special status to the Russian language” in Russian-speaking regions, Mr. Yatsenyuk stated.

Mr. Turchynov said the government had submitted a draft to the Ukrainian Parliament that would grant “immunity from criminal and administrative prosecution” to protesters provided they surrender their weapons.

The Ukrainian leaders gave no timeframe for the proposed reforms, but earlier Mr. Yatsenyuk called for a nation-wide discussion of the constitutional reform by October 1.

Surrender of arms

Kiev’s views on constitutional reforms are broadly in line with what has been agreed upon in Geneva. However, its interpretation of another key demand — for “all illegal armed groups” to lay down their arms and clear “all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places” — is glaringly different from Russia’s reading of the Geneva accords. Ukraine’s Acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said the call to vacate occupied buildings was not addressed to protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square because their presence there was “legal.”

Far right groups who clashed with police in Kiev in February have refused to surrender their weapons and still occupy some government buildings in the capital. Russia takes the stand that disarming the nationalist radicals must be a top priority for Kiev. “It is clear that when we talk about disarmament, we mean first of all confiscating weapons from the militants of the Right Sector and other pro-fascist groups,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

Moscow promised to give “the widest possible support” to efforts by Ukrainians in interaction with European monitors to resolve the crisis.

At the same time, the Russian Foreign Ministry lashed out at the U.S. for seeking to “whitewash” the use of force by Ukrainian authorities against antigovernment protesters in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces. U.S. President Barack Obama has threatened to impose additional sanctions against Russia unless there is progress within days in disarming pro-Russian protesters. Moscow called such threats “completely unacceptable.”

The protesters in eastern Ukraine have flatly refused to back down till Kiev withdraws its military and vowed to hold a referendum on their regions’ status on May 11.

On Friday, protesters peacefully took control of yet another city in eastern Ukraine, Seversk in Donetsk region.

There have been no clashes in the past two days as Kiev put its “anti-terrorist operation” on hold for the Easter holidays.

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