Archive for January, 2014

FORMER US NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER HADLEY: IRAQ WAR WORTHWHILE

January 31, 2014

Newsmax on January 30, 2014, reported that though al-Qaida has regained control in some parts of Iraq, the Americans who served there should be proud of their service, says Stephen Hadley, the former assistant to the president for National Security Affairs under George W. Bush. Excerpts below:

“All is not lost,” Hadley writes in an op-ed piece published online Thursday night by The Wall Street Journal.

“Americans who served [in Iraq] can be proud of their service: toppling a brutal dictator, defeating al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007-08, and giving the Iraqi people a chance to build a nation unique in the history of Iraq and the Middle East,” he writes.

Now it’s time for Washington and its allies to do their part to “make sure that this opportunity is not squandered,” he added, including congressional approval of the funding and transfer of missiles, helicopters and other military equipment.

“The American people need to understand that their own security now rides on this fight,” he wrote. “For we know this about al-Qaida: Ultimately, Americans and our interests, friends and territory will be their target.”

Hadley lamented that “people have forgotten” the bloody and violent history of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but that U.S. soldiers have every right to “be proud of their role in ending this criminal regime and freeing the Iraqi people from a brutal tyrant.”

America needs only to look to Syria to see “what happens when a bloody dictator goes unchecked,” he wrote.

“The removal of Saddam opened up a very different possibility: an Iraq in which Sunni, Shiites, Kurds, Christians and other minorities would work together to build a democratic and peaceful future,” Hadley wrote.

…Hadley said the recent spike in al-Qaida attacks in Iraq “results from nearly three years of civil war in neighboring Syria, mistakes by the Iraqi government, and an inadequate response from the U.S. and its regional allies.”

Yet Hadley said he’s optimistic about Americans’ help in building and training an an Iraqi security force, and that Sunni tribes “are rejoining the fight against al-Qaida.”

Hadley also pointed out now that the Arab Spring euphoria of 2011 has faded, the region needs an example of communities working together to defeat terrorism, establish “tolerant and inclusive politics” and produce a growing economy.

“If it can overcome its current challenges, Iraq can be that example,” Hadley wrote.

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US PREPARING FINANCIAL SANCTIONS AGAINST UKRAINE

January 30, 2014

Daily Telegraph of London on January 30, 2014, published a Reuter report on the Obama administration preparing financial sanctions that could be imposed on Ukrainian officials and protest leaders if violence escalates in the political crisis gripping Ukraine, congressional aides have said. Excerpts below:

Congressional aides, who asked not to be identified by name, said they had discussed the sanction preparations with administration officials.

They said final details of the package have not been worked out, but it could be put in place quickly against government officials – or leaders of the protest movement – in case of widespread violence.

Six people have been killed in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities in protests that erupted more than two months ago…

Alarmed by the crisis, Washington has revoked the visas of some Ukrainian officials.

President Barack Obama referred to Ukraine in his State of the Union address on January 28, voicing support for the principle that all people have the right to free expression.

Vice President Joe Biden has spoken to Yanukovich at least three times. And two US senators, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut, travelled to Kiev last month and addressed demonstrations.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 29 passed a resolution calling on all sides in the confrontation to refrain from violence and work toward a peaceful resolution.

“The situation in Ukraine remains very volatile and more needs to be done,” said Representative Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who sponsored the resolution. “We must remain engaged.”

“We were encouraged that Ukraine’s parliament repealed the most egregious of the most anti-democratic laws. Today we want to urge President Yanukovich to sign the repeal laws,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.

She told reporters the State Department has been willing to consider sanctions but no decision has been made.

Putin raised the pressure on Ukraine on January 29, saying Russia would wait until Ukraine forms a new government before fully implementing a $15 billion bailout deal that Kiev urgently needs.

UNREST IN CHINA

January 28, 2014

BBC News on January 27, 2014, reported that clashes killed 12 people in China’s western region of Xinjiang…Excerpts below:

Six people were shot dead by police and six were killed in explosions in Xinjiang’s Aksu prefecture on Friday, state media said.

Xinjiang, home to the Muslim Uighur minority group, sees sporadic clashes.

Verifying reports from the region is difficult because the information flow out of Xinjiang is tightly controlled.

Authorities traditionally blame extremists for outbreaks of violence, while Uighur activists point to tight Chinese control as a cause of tensions.
State-run news agency Xinhua said explosions took place at a hair salon and market.

After the blast, police shot six suspects, while another six died when they set off explosives, the news agency said, adding that five other people had been arrested.

Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for exiled Uighur group the World Uighur Congress, suggested that the protests were sparked by anger at the salon because it was a front for a brothel.

“The forced repression and provocation is the real reason for the confrontation,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Chinese state media reported that Ilham Tohti, a Beijing-based scholar from the Uighur ethnic group, was being investigated for “separatist activities”.

Mr Tohti is an economist at a university in Beijing

The outspoken scholar, who is known to be critical of China’s ethnic policies, has been detained since 16 January.

The US State Department said his detention appeared “to be part of a disturbing pattern of arrests and detentions of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, religious leaders and others who peacefully challenge official Chinese policies and actions”.

Xinjiang has experienced several violent clashes in recent months, and its unrest has been linked to other attacks in China.

In December, 16 people were killed in a riot in a village near the city of Kashgar, and another eight were killed later that month in Yarkland county.

In late October, five people were killed when a car ploughed into a crowd and then burst into flames in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

KILLED PROTESTER MOURNED IN UKRAINE AMID CRISIS

January 27, 2014

Fox News on January 26, 2013, published an AP report on thousands of Ukrainians chanted “Hero!” and sang the national anthem, as a coffin carrying a protester who was killed in last week’s clashes with police was carried through the streets of the capital, underscoring the rising tensions in the country’s two-month political crisis. Excerpts below:

Mikhail Zhiznevsky, 25, was one of three protesters who died in clashes Wednesday.

“He could have been my fiance, but he died defending my future so that I will live in a different Ukraine,” said Nina Uvarov, a 25-year-old student from Kiev who wept as Zhiznevsky’s body was carried out of St. Michael’s Cathedral.

The opposition contends that Zhiznevsky and another activist were shot by police in an area where demonstrators had been throwing rocks and firebombs at riot police for several days. The government claims the two demonstrators were killed with hunting rifles, which they say police do not carry. The authorities would not say how the third protester died.

Meanwhile, protests against President Viktor Yanukovych continued to engulf the country, now beginning to spread to central and eastern Ukraine, the leader’s support base.

In Dnipropetrovsk, 240 miles southeast of Kiev on the Dnipro River, several hundred demonstrators tried to storm a local administration building, but police drove them back with water sprayed from a fire truck in subfreezing temperatures, the Interfax news agency reported. In Zaporozhets, about 45 miles down river, demonstrators gathered outside the city administration building.

Zhiznevsky’s body was then carried several hundred yards to Independence Square in central Kiev, where protesters have established a large tent camp and held demonstrations around the clock since early December. Crowds shouted “Yanukovych is a murderer!” and “Down with the criminal,” a reference to Yanukovych’s run-ins with the law during his youth. The coffin was then carried to the site of Zhiznevsky’s death at barricades near the Ukrainian parliament.

A crowd on late January 25 besieged a building, throwing fireworks, firebombs and rocks, near the protest tent camp where about 200 police were sheltering. By early the next morning, a corridor was created, allowing police to leave.

On January 26, activists were cleaning up the devastated Ukrainian House building, sweeping broken glass and furniture, but also the trash left there by police.

The overnight outburst came soon after opposition leaders issued a defiant response to Yanukovych’s offer to make Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of their top figures, the country’s prime minister…He vowed protests will continue.

About half of Ukraine’s people favored deeper integration with the EU, according to polls, and many Ukrainians widely resent Russia’s long influence over the country.

In the past week, demonstrators have seized government administration buildings in a score of cities in western Ukraine, where Yanukovych’s support is weak and desire for European ties is strong.

Zhiznevsky was from Belarus, a neighboring ex-Soviet country where hardline President Alexander Lukashenko has jailed and harassed his opponents. Vladimir Neklyaev, a Belarusian opposition leader, came to Kiev to bid farewell to Zhiznevsky.

“Ukraine is showing Belarus an example of how one should fight for freedom,” Neklyaev said. “I am sure that our countries have a common future in Europe, where neither Ukrainians nor Belarusians will die.”

Despite an offer to release activists and stop more persecutions, the government continued a crackdown, with over 40 detained in the central city of Cherkasy after a protest, according to prosecutors.

UKRAINE RIOTS RESUME, FIRES LIGHT UP NIGHT SKY

January 25, 2014

Fox News on January 24, 2014, reported that hours after the president’s comments, huge fireballs lit up the night sky in central Kiev and plumes of thick black smoke rose from burning tires at giant barricades erected by protesters.

Clashes resumed at the barricades, which are just yards from lines of riot police and also made up of bags of ice and scraps of furniture.

Angry demonstrators hurled firebombs, rocks and fireworks at officers. Riot police responded with tear gas and several dozen protesters were rushed to a makeshift medical triage area to be treated.

“We will force the authorities to respect us,” 27-year-old protester Artur Kapelan said. “Not they, but we will dictate the conditions of a truce.”

The fighting had stopped earlier this week as opposition leaders entered into face-to-face talks with Yanukovych.

But hundreds of demonstrators in ski masks and helmets were still armed with sticks, stones and firebombs at the Kiev barricades.

After nearly two months of ignoring mass demonstrations calling for his ouster, Yanukovych offered to meet some of their demands, after crowds angered by the deaths of at least two protesters and allegations of abuse by authorities besieged government buildings in scores of cities in western Ukraine.

…Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader who is a former world heavyweight boxing champion, declared the only way to end the street protests — known as the Maidan after the central Kiev square occupied by demonstrators — is for Yanukovych to resign.

“Just a month ago, the Maidan would have gone home,” Klitschko told reporters, according to the Interfax news agency. “Today, people are demanding the president’s resignation.”

The protest law enacted last week appeared to have backfired on Yanukovych, sparking confrontations in which demonstrators threw stones and firebombs at police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. The violence was a harsh contrast to the determined peacefulness of the anti-government protests that have gripped the country for the last two months.

At least two demonstrators were killed this week in clashes with police and protesters have seized government offices in cities in western Ukraine, where support for Yanukovych is thin.

In a separate incident, a protester was found dead outside Kiev this week after going missing from a hospital together with a prominent activist who was beaten but survived.

Meanwhile, protester anger boiled over as one activist recounted how he was stripped naked, beaten and humiliated by police after being detained this week at a barricade in Kiev.

“They wanted to break my spirit and dignity but I stood firm,” said Mykhailo Havrilyuk.

His plight shocked the country when a video of the abuse was posted online, showing him standing naked in the snow, covered in bruises and taunted by policemen. Protesters were further angered after Kiev courts placed about a dozen activists, detained in clashes earlier this week, under arrest.

…protesters continued occupying government buildings in a number of cities in western Ukraine, having forced two governors to resign and chasing another out of his office. Government buildings in many other cities were besieged by angry crowds.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who spent several years backing the scrapped EU agreement with Ukraine, suggested that Yanukovych was losing control over the country. He posted a map of Ukraine on his Twitter account, where many regions were shown engulfed by protests.

“If Kiev regime tries a military solution to this situation, it will be very bloody and it will fail,” Bildt tweeted.

EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele flew to Kiev on January 24 to meet with Yanukovych and the opposition and try to broker a solution. The West has been urging Yanukovych to compromise with the protesters as well as threatening sanctions against his government.

“The country is sliding towards dictatorship and we must stop that,” said Denis Nakhmanovich, a 33-year-old protester.

UKRAINIAN PROTESTERS OCCUPY GOVERNMENT BUILDINGS – PRESIDENT UNDER INCREASED PRESSURE

January 24, 2014

Fox News on January 24, 2014, reported that protesters have erected new barricades and seized a government building in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev while also maintaining the siege of several governors’ offices in the country’s west, raising the pressure on the government after a critical meeting with the president.

After meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych, opposition leaders told the crowds that he has promised to ensure the release of dozens of protesters detained after clashes with police and stop further detentions. They urged the protesters to maintain a shaky truce following violent street battles in the capital,…

…some protesters were still resistant. Early Friday, the protesters broke into the downtown building of the Ministry of Agricultural Policy, meeting no resistance.

On January 23, demonstrators again set aflame barricades of tires that had been quenched when opposition leaders offered the deadline.

The clash site is a few hundred yards away from the protester tent camp on Independence Square, where around-the-clock demonstrations have been held since early December.

At least two people were killed by gunfire at the clash site on Wednesday. Demonstrators had pelted riot police with barrages of stones and set police buses on fire, while the officers responded with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades.

Enraged protesters stormed government offices in three western Ukraine cities on January 23, forcing one governor to write a letter of resignation, as demonstrations intensified outside Kiev.

The president called a special session of parliament next week to discuss the tensions, telling the parliament speaker: “The situation demands an urgent settlement.” But there was no indication that the move represented a compromise, since the president’s backers hold a majority of seats.

Support for Yanukovych is virtually non-existent in western Ukraine and most residents want closer ties to the 28-nation EU.

In Lviv, a city in near the Polish border 450 kilometers (280 miles) west of Kiev, hundreds of activists burst Thursday into the office of regional governor Oleh Salo, a Yanukovych appointee, shouting “Revolution!” and singing Christmas carols.

After surrounding him and forcing him to sign a resignation letter, an activist ripped it out of Salo’s hands and lifted it up to the cheers and applause of the crowd. Salo later retracted his signature, saying he had been coerced.

Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters smashed windows, broke doors and stormed into the governor’s office in the city of Rivne, shouting “Down with the gang!” — a common reference to Yanukovych’s government. Once inside, they sang the national anthem.

Angry crowds also besieged government offices in other western regions.

Meanwhile, anger spread after a video was released online appearing to show police abusing and humiliating a naked protester in what looked like a location close to the site of the Kiev clashes.

In the video, a young man, his body covered in multiple bruises, wearing nothing but socks, is made to stand on the snow in freezing temperatures, while a policeman punches him in the head and others force him to pose for photos.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement, apologizing “for the impermissible actions of people wearing police uniforms” and launched an investigation into the incident.

The opposition maintains that as many as five people died in the clashes, but say they have no evidence as the bodies were removed by authorities.

The Interior Ministry said Thursday that 73 people have been detained, 52 of whom are being investigated for “mass riots” — a new criminal charge that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.

The United States has revoked the visas of Ukrainian officials linked to violence and threatened more sanctions. …it welcomed Yanukovych’s face-to-face talks with the opposition as a “necessary first step toward resolving this crisis.”

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said January 23 that if the situation in Ukraine does not stabilize, the EU “would assess possible consequences in its relationship.” Barroso also said he had received assurances from Yanukovych that the Ukrainian leader did not foresee the need to impose a state of emergency.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

CHINA TRYING TO DRIVE U.S. OUT OF CHINA: OFFICIAL

January 23, 2014

The Washington Times in an article by Bill Gertz on January 22, 2014, reported that former State Department official Kurt Campbell recently explained why 20 years of Pentagon efforts to build trust with the Chinese military have been difficult: China wants to drive the U.S. military out of Asia, and operates under a different strategic culture from that of the United States. Excerpts below:

Mr. Campbell, a longtime Asia policymaker at both State and the Pentagon, said the danger of a U.S.-China military confrontation was highlighted by the Dec. 5 near-collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea.

The former assistant secretary of state for East Asia said at a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that a local incident — not a planned military attack — is more likely to produce a future U.S.-China crisis.

The U.S. government has sought for years to develop a “rules of the road” for military interaction with China in Asia — with limited success, Mr. Campbell said Jan. 15.

“Our forces are out there, they’re going to be out there, we’re going to sail near one another. We need to know how we will operate in close proximity,” said Mr. Campbell, head of The Asia Group consulting firm.

The Cowpens “almost collided, literally less than 100 yards, from a Chinese vessel that went across its bow,” he noted.

For nearly two decades, the U.S. has tried to hold talks with China on maritime rules. “And frankly we have to ask ourselves why we’ve had such difficulty,” he said.

Among the reasons behind China’s reluctance is that Beijing regards the U.S. military as “the gold standard” for armed forces, Mr. Campbell said, “and they don’t want to reveal certain limitations of capabilities, so they’re very careful how they expose us in those interactions.”

Additionally, tensions between China’s military and the Communist Party have made it difficult for Chinese military officials to engage their U.S. counterparts “the way our four-stars do on a regular basis,” he said.

Party officials restrict China’s military from holding sincere talks with U.S. officials because such exchanges are regarded as the exclusive domain of the party.

“Third, what the Chinese want is for the United States not to operate so regularly and so close to their borders,” Mr. Campbell said, noting that the military views U.S.-China military agreements as tantamount to “giving seatbelts to speeders.”

“They don’t want us to have that confidence operating near them,” Mr. Campbell said, noting that Chinese opposition to military agreements is based on concerns that they will mirror Cold War pacts with the Soviet Union and thus reflect that China’s communist regime is today’s Soviet state.

The challenge of the next 20 years, he noted, will be to try and reach common ground with Beijing on military issues.

For the United States, success in dealing with China will require a concerted political and military effort as well as close ties to allies, Mr. Campbell said.

SWEDEN OPENS EU DEBATE ON UKRAINE SANCTIONS

January 22, 2014

The EUobserver.com on January 20, 2014, reported that Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has broken the EU’s silence on potential sanctions on Ukraine. Excerpts below:

Going into an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on Monday (20 January), he told press: “I wouldn’t exclude it … We’ll have to see what happens.”

Half-way through the talks, he tweeted: “EU must start looking at effective instruments against corrupt actors manoeuvering also in the dark corners of the politics of Ukraine.”

He told press after the meeting: “I think we should look towards various instruments targeted against corrupt money [in Ukraine].”

But an EU source noted “there was some discussion on sanctions, some countries raised the subject” at the ministers’ lunchtime debate – the first time the issue has come up in EU talks since Ukraine began its crackdown on protesters.

EU ministers also urged Ukraine to “reverse” new laws which criminalise the opposition movement.

But they added the Union is still happy to sign a political association and free trade treaty with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych if he wants to.

Meanwhile, Bildt’s remarks do not come out of the blue.

The US has already put Ukrainian interior minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko and up to 20 other officials on a draft sanctions list.
Ukrainian protesters picketed the EU embassy in Kiev to call for action.

The main opposition party, Batkivshchyna, is also circulating detailed allegations on “corrupt actors” in Yanukovych’s inner circle who use Austrian and British firms to launder money.

A senior government source from another EU state told EUobserver that individual EU countries could impose unilateral measures pending an EU-level accord.

“You can have national blacklists based on purely national decisions,” the contact said.

They added: “It would be difficult to target oligarchs because, even in the national systems, you need to say why such and such a person is on the list and this could not be a purely political argument. I think, first of all, you would target officials responsible for the use of force.”
The question of who to target is a hot topic in Ukraine.

Volodomyr Yermolenko, a researcher at the Internews-Ukraine think tank in Kiev, told this website on Monday the EU should first target people who backed last week’s anti-protest laws.

He named Zakharchenko and five “hawk” MPs from Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions – Yefremov, Kolesnichenko, Tsariov, Oliynyk, and Chechetov.

He noted that the EU could go after pro-Yanukovych oligarchs, such as Rinat Akhmetov, who has assets in the UK, in a second wave of measures.

“An indicative list of other people … should be handed to the Party of the Regions with a clear message: ‘If today’s actions continue, the list of people under sanctions will significantly enlarge’,” Yermolenko said.

“These people understand only the language of force,” he added.

Amid the EU foreign ministers’ focus on Africa and the Middle East on Monday, a Polish centre-right MEP, Krzysztof Lisek, noted: “It’s a bit disappointing that the ministers paid so little attention, relatively speaking, to matters in Europe.”

He added: “If we cannot make a positive contribution to a crisis in our immediate neighbourhood, then the EU’s credibility as a foreign policy actor is in doubt.”

UKRAINE OPPOSITION SNUBS TALKS – PRESIDENT YANUKOVYCH MUST TAKE PART

January 21, 2014

Wall Street Journal on January 20, 2014, reported that efforts to solve the political crisis in Ukraine foundered as opposition leaders refused to take part in talks with the government unless President Viktor Yanukovych joined the discussions. Excerpts below:

Hundreds of protesters, mostly masked and wearing helmets, lined up opposite riot police for a second day, throwing Molotov cocktails and cobblestones, and banging on makeshift drums. Police tossed stones back at protesters, fired rubber bullets and sprayed water on the ground in front of their lines that turned to ice in freezing temperatures.

Both sides said dozens had been injured since the clashes.

The escalation came amid frustration among younger and more radical protesters with the week long occupation of Independence Square in central Kiev, which has yielded few concessions.

Thousands of demonstrators have stood on the square since November to demand the government resign after it walked away from a trade and political deal with the EU and accepted a Russian bailout instead.


Opposition leaders have criticized the violence but said it was a result of Mr. Yanukovych ignoring their demands, including for snap presidential elections.

“I call on all citizens and patriots to defend their country and their future,” opposition leader and former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko said. “Get in cars, minibuses, buses. You’re needed here so that Ukraine wins and not Yanukovych.”

After talks with Mr. Klitschko, Mr. Yanukovych ordered his national security adviser to arrange talks between the government and the opposition.

Mr. Klitschko said the opposition wouldn’t take part unless Mr. Yanukovych did. Opposition leaders sent their deputies to talks with Mr. Yanukovych’s representatives with a list of demands including repealing the new laws.

Some in the opposition say they are concerned that the offer of talks, announced late Sunday night, was a ruse to calm tensions and buy time before launching a crackdown.

CLASHES ERUPT AT KYIV RALLY

January 20, 2014

Radio Free Europe on January 19, 2014, reported a tense standoff between antigovernment demonstrators and riot police continued overnight in Kyiv following clashes in the Ukrainian capital. Excerpts below:

The violence on January 19 came after tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Independence Square in defiance of new antiprotest legislation.

Protesters attacked police with sticks as they tried to push their way toward the parliament building, which had been cordoned off by rows of police and buses.

Stun grenades were used and smoke was seen above the crowd.

One police bus was destroyed and set alight. The flames of the burning bus could be seen from far away.

As clashes continued reports emerged that boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko had met with President Viktor Yanukovych at his presidential residence outside Kyiv.

Klitschko later tweeted that Yanukovych had agreed to set up a committee to settle the political crisis.

On his website, Yanukovych said that he had tasked a working group — headed by national security head Andriy Klyuev — to meet with opposition representatives on January 20 to work out a solution to the crisis.

The White House urged an end to the violence, with National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden saying that Washington was deeply concerned and urging “all sides to immediately de-escalate the situation.”

Hayden said Ukraine’s government “has moved to weaken the foundations of Ukraine’s democracy by criminalizing peaceful protest and stripping civil society and political opponents of key democratic protections under the law.”

She called on Ukraine to repeal recent legislation limiting protests, to remove riot police from downtown Kyiv, and to start talking to the opposition.

“The U.S. will continue to consider additional steps — including sanctions — in response to the use of violence,” Hayden said in a statement.

The new legislation — signed into law by Yanukovych on January 16 — bans any unauthorized installation of tents, stages, or amplifiers. It also prohibits protesters from covering their faces or from wearing construction hats.

The legislation allows for prison terms of up to 15 years for the “mass violation” of public order.

The new laws also require nongovernmental organizations to register as “foreign agents” if they are funded from abroad, mirroring a similar rule on the books in Russia.

The new legislation was passed by a show of hands in the parliament after the opposition blocked access to the podium and the electronic voting system.

Opposition lawmakers said the way the laws were passed was unconstitutional and declared the legislation null and void.

Also on January 16, opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk declared the start of opposition-sponsored referendums and elections for new government bodies and officials in Ukraine.

“We are starting popular voting on the lack of confidence [in the government] and over the dismissal of [Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych,” he said.

He also said a popular vote would be held to elect an alternative Kyiv City Council and mayor of Kyiv.

Tensions remain high in Ukraine since Yanukovych’s abrupt decision late in November not to sign a deal with the EU, sparking some of the biggest protests in the country since the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych allegedly changed course after pressure from the Kremlin, which has since offered financial aid and cheaper gas to cash-strapped Ukraine.

Analysts say the protests do not appear to have shaken Yanukovych’s hold on power. But Yanukovych’s decision late on January 17 to sack his chief of staff, analysts say, indicates that tensions are simmering within the Ukrainian leader’s inner circle.

The president’s office gave no reason for the dismissal of Serhiy Lyovochkin.

The AFP news agency quotes an unnamed Ukrainian official as saying Yanukovych’s spokeswoman, Darka Chepak, is also considering stepping down.

“Turmoil in regime in Kyiv. Reports of resignations, dismissals and general uncertainty,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter.