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Ukrainian protesters seek constitutional changes

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KYIV, Ukraine -- Leaders of the anti-government protests that have gripped Ukraine's capital for more than two months say they will seek constitutional changes that will weaken the president's powers.

The changes are expected to be discussed in a parliamentary session today that comes as Ukraine's political crisis wades through a stalemate. Protesters are refusing to leave their encampment in downtown Kyiv or vacate buildings they occupy, but radicals who clashed with police last month are holding to an uneasy truce.

Meanwhile, the European Union urged Ukraine to end its political crisis so the bloc could consider increasing aid to the country's struggling economy. However, there was little sign of progress on that front.

Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Monday said constitutional change would "cancel the dictatorial powers of the president and transfer the right of governing the country to the Ukrainian people."

Justice Minister Olena Lukash said last week officials were preparing measures for constitutional change, but did not give details.

Another protest leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, said Monday the opposition also will push in parliament for a blanket amnesty for more than 100 people arrested in the protests. Parliament last week offered amnesty to some on the condition protesters leave many of the buildings they occupy, but the opposition disdained that move, saying authorities were essentially using the arrested protesters as hostages.

Protesters also are demanding President Viktor Yanukovych's resignation and early elections. Yanukovych, who returned to work Monday after a brief sick leave, has shown no sign of accepting either of those demands. In addition, the issue that set off the protests remains: Yanukovych's shelving in November of an agreement to deepen Ukraine's ties with the European Union.

A police crackdown on demonstrations against that decision galvanized anger over a wide range of grievances against his rule and the protests grew, sometimes drawing more than 100,000 people.

Yanukovych backed off the EU deal because of concerns the bloc was not offering a sufficient cushion for the trade Ukraine would likely lose with Russia, which wants the country to be part of a Moscow-led trade alliance. After shelving the EU agreement, Yanukovych obtained a $15-billion aid package from Russia, further angering protesters who resent Russia's long dominance of Ukraine.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected in Ukraine this week on her third diplomatic mission to Kyiv since the crisis began.

Her spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, said Monday the EU is considering new financial measures to support Ukraine's troubled economy, but the country's political crisis must be resolved before any assistance can be granted.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso also said the EU is looking for additional ways to support Ukraine's economy but the 28-nation bloc won't be drawn into competition with Russia.

"We are not going to a bidding competition of who pay more for a signature from Ukraine because we believe that this is the path that most Ukrainians prefer," Barroso told reporters in Brussels. "They want to come closer to (the) European Union and certainly we are ready to support that."

Canada will be keeping a close eye on Russia's involvement in the turbulent Ukraine as the Winter Olympics get ready to begin in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Canada will continue to vigilantly monitor developments in Ukraine as the world spotlight shifts to Russia this week, Baird told a news conference Monday.

"The Olympics are an exciting time for the athletes, for the world and for the Olympic spirit. We will very much be keeping an eye on the situation throughout Ukraine," he said.

"We will not be taking our eye off Ukraine for one moment during the Sochi Games."

-- The Associated Press, with files from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2014 A8

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