By Jim Heintz
and Maria Danilova
KIEV, UKRAINE: Amid the deepest turmoil since the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yanukovych’s announcement Thursday that he was taking indefinite sick leave prompted a guessing game among Ukrainians about what was happening to their country.
Debate raged on whether he was just sick or whether he was leaving the limelight in preparation for something, possibly either cracking down or stepping down.
Yanukovych has faced two months of major protests that sometimes paralyze central Kiev and have spread to other cities. The protests started after he backed out of a long-awaited agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of Russia, but quickly came to encompass a wide array of discontent over corruption, heavy-handed police and dubious courts.
The official line is that Yanukovych, 63, has an acute respiratory illness and a high fever.
But the opposition isn’t buying it. Some say he is looking for an excuse to avoid further discussions with opposition leaders, which have done nothing to resolve the tensions.
Vitali Klitschko, a leading opposition figure, has a more ominous theory — the president could be pretending to take himself out of action in preparation for imposing a state of emergency.
“I remember from the Soviet Union it’s a bad sign — a bad sign because always if some Soviet Union leaders have to make an unpopular decision, they go to the hospital,” Klitschko said.
Yanukovych’s press office said the president was still in charge of the country, but there was no indication of how long he might be on leave or how much work he would be able to do. He isn’t known to have serious health problems, although his office said he has taken sick leave twice before — once for a knee problem and the other time also for a respiratory illness.
One political commentator suggested the announcement could be a ruse to take him out of power, as in the attempted coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.
“I don’t remember official statements on Viktor Yanukovych’s colds. But I remember well, when on Aug. 19, 1991, the vice president of the USSR, Gennady Yanayev, announced the serious illness of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev,” Vitaly Portnikov wrote on his Facebook page.
Still, others took the announcement at face value. Analyst Mykhailo Pohrebinsky noted that Yanukovych had made a late-night visit to parliament amid tense discussions on Wednesday and “those who were close to him said he really was very pale and exhausted.”
Hours after the government announced his sick leave, Yanukovych issued a release upbraiding his political foes, saying “the opposition continues to escalate the situation and urges people to stand in the frost for the sake of the political ambitions of several of its leaders.”