The government of the embattled Ukranian president Viktor Yanukovych is plunged into fresh turmoil after he goes on sick leave, leaving a political vacuum during a national crisis.
Yanukovych, who has faced violent protests calling for his resignation since November, was declared officially ill in a statement on the presidential website. “The president of Ukraine has been officially registered as sick, with an acute respiratory ailment and a high temperature,” the statement said.
His illness comes during a stand-off between his government and opposition protesters, and potentially threatens to derail a deal with Russia.
Russia is planning to buy Ukrainian government bonds and is offering a $15bn bailout deal. But after the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Tuesday, Yanukovych’s sick leave has left the deal in doubt, as Russia has said that it will only go ahead once a new government has been appointed by the president.
A presidential spokesman said: “Today is the first day of the illness. He has a high temperature. We are not doctors, but it is clear that a high temperature does not go down in a single day. The doctors will do all they can so that he can recover quickly.”
His illness triggered claims among the opposition that the president was attempting to buy himself time.
“This smacks of a ‘diplomatic illness’,” said Rostislav Pavlenko, a member of the Udar Party headed by the former boxer Vitaly Klitschko. “It allows Yanukovych not to sign laws, not to meet the opposition, absent himself from decision to solve the political crisis.”
Late on Wednesday night, a bill was passed granting a conditional amnesty for activists who had been detained. The amnesty offers freedom from prosecution to peaceful protesters, but only on condition that activists leave official buildings they have occupied.
So far, they have refused to leave key municipal buildings, including the capital Kiev’s city hall, unless the president resigns, erecting wooden watchtowers at barricades in the city centre. The opposition did not vote for the amnesty bill as it is unhappy at demands to vacate buildings.
Their continued occupation has prompted claims by the president that the opposition was provoking the unrest. “We have fulfilled all the obligations which the authorities took on themselves,” he said. “However, the opposition continues to whip up the situation, calling on people to stand in the cold for the sake of the political ambitions of a few leaders. I think this is wrong.”
Leonid Kravchuk, the country’s first president after independence, warned that the country was “on the brink of civil war” and urged both sides to come to an agreement. “It is a revolution. It is a dramatic situation in which we must act with the greatest responsibility,” he said.
Yanukovych’s allies said that he had come to vote for the bill directly from hospital. “He looked ill,” Mykhailo Chechetov, from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said.
However, photographs released by the presidential press service showing Yanukovych holding talks with a European Union delegation earlier in the day revealed no obvious signs of illness.
Kiev has been rocked by protests which began late last year after Yanukovych decided to reject closer ties with the European Union in favour of a deal with Russia.
Six people have been killed and hundreds injured in street battles between anti-government demonstrators and police. Three activists were shot dead in clashes in Kiev last week. On Wednesday night, a police officer became the seventh fatality after he died of a heart attack.
The crisis has also left Ukraine’s economy in tatters. On Thursday, the cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt against default rose to a new high, leading to the central bank to intervene for a fourth successive day.
The bank offerd dollars on the inter-bank market to prevent the national currency, the hryvnia, from sliding form its position at about 8 to the dollar.