Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych Driven From Power

9 years, 7 months ago - February 23, 2014
Ukraine President Driven From Power
KIEV, Ukraine—The whereabouts of President Viktor Yanukovych were unknown Sunday, the day after he left the capital, protesters took control of the city center, and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from prison.

The center of Kiev was calm the day after parliament voted to remove the president and set new presidential elections for May 25.

Mr. Yanukovych on Saturday vowed to remain in power, even as his political allies abandoned him in droves. In an interview with a TV station in Kharkiv in the eastern portion of the country, he denounced the events in Kiev as a "coup d'état" that he blamed on "bandits."

"I have no plans to leave the country and I have no plans to resign. I am the legally elected president and all the international intermediaries I've talked to (over the last few days) have given me guarantees of security. We'll see how those are fulfilled," Mr. Yanukovych said in the TV interview, speaking in Russian.

Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Sunday told reporters that his agency is unaware of Mr. Yanukovych's whereabouts after the president's plane was denied permission to take off Saturday night in the eastern city of Donetsk. "He then got in a car and fled in an unknown direction," said Mr. Avakov, according to the Interfax news agency.

Oleksandr Turchynov, a leading opposition lawmaker, was elected speaker of parliament, which under the constitution makes him acting head of state.

Mr. Turchynov told lawmakers that Mr. Yanukovych had tried to board a plane to Russia but was turned back by border officials and had returned to the area near his hometown of Donetsk in Ukraine's east, according to the Interfax news agency. An official from the border guards later told Interfax that a plane carrying Mr. Yanukovych had sought clearance to leave Donetsk late on Saturday but was denied it because of lack of necessary permits.

In a day of fast-moving developments, Ms. Tymoshenko was released from prison and made her way to Independence Square in Kiev where she addressed a large nighttime crowd.

Speaking from a wheelchair after suffering back problems during her 2½ years in prison, Ms. Tymoshenko called for bringing Mr. Yanukovych to the square to face the people. Though widely seen as a potential presidential candidate, she gave no hints of her plans, saying only, "I came back to work."

"When snipers were firing bullets into our guys' hearts, they were firing into everyone's hearts. And if those who organized and carried it are not punished by the worst, most severe court, it will be our shame," she told the crowd.

Tens of thousands poured onto Kiev's main square on Saturday evening ahead of her speech for funerals for some of the dead protesters. As pictures of dead protesters flashed across a big screen, the crowd chanted, "Heroes never die!" and, referring to Mr. Yanukovych, "Death to the criminal!"

Opposition leaders had signed a peace deal with Mr. Yanukovych on Friday after dozens were killed in clashes between protesters and police. The deal proposed power sharing and presidential elections by the end of the year. But protesters weren't satisfied and as they called for his immediate ouster, police withdrew from the center of the capital on Saturday.

The dramatic collapse of the Ukraine government threatened to deepen tensions between the West and Russia, potentially drawing its neighbor closer to Europe just weeks after it appeared Moscow had succeeded in drawing Kiev back into its embrace.

European officials immediately backed the decisions of the parliament and rejected Mr. Yanukovych's allegations of a coup. Moscow has strongly backed Mr. Yanukovych, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced the events in Kiev as "a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order in Ukraine."

Mr. Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Kiev had been taken over by "illegal extremists groups," and the situation in Ukraine had sharply degraded, according to a statement from the Russian foreign ministry.

Still, just what Russia's reaction would be wasn't immediately clear. Western officials seemed to be going out of their way not to provoke Moscow. Some Kremlin aides in recent weeks had suggested Moscow could intervene to protect pro-Russian regions if Ukraine were to slide into civil war, but there is been no indication of high-level Kremlin support for such a move.

In Washington, the White House issued a cautiously worded statement. "We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government and early elections, and today's developments could move us closer to that goal," it said.

The statement also said the U.S. "will work with our allies, with Russia and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified, and democratic Ukraine. Going forward, the Ukrainian people should know that the United States deeply values our long-standing ties with Ukraine and will support them as they pursue a path of democracy and economic development."

White House officials didn't specifically endorse the ouster of Mr. Yanukovych. A senior administration official said the U.S. wants to see a "broad, technocratic government of national unity," but that the Ukrainian people must decide who makes up the government.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Saturday on the Ukraine government and opposition to preserve national unity and take up talks to overcome the crisis. "In this critical situation, all acting parties must be aware of their responsibility for the future and the national unity of the Ukraine. Both sides must be careful not to create facts that might have fatal consequences," Mr. Steinmeier said in a statement. "The existing constitutional order is the legal framework for all political decisions."

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said he agreed with Mr. Steinmeier to support the new Ukraine government and would push for an International Monetary Fund financial-assistance package for Ukraine.

The European Union also is prepared to offer Ukraine financial support, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said on Saturday. "If there is a reform-minded government in Ukraine, we will work with the international community and international financial institutions to support Ukraine," Mr. Barroso told the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag."

On the sidelines of a meeting of financial leaders in Sydney on Sunday, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Russia will delay a promised bailout for Ukraine, but the International Monetary Fund could help the country return to financial stability.

A U.S. Treasury official said Mr. Siluanov agreed in a meeting with Secretary Jacob Lew"on the importance of promoting economic and financial stability in Ukraine, and the need to implement reforms that could be supported by an IMF program."

Mr. Lew, representing the IMF's most powerful member, also said Ukraine's next government needs to commit to economic restructuring if it wants help from the U.S.

"We've been very clear that there needs to be stability in Ukraine and a willingness to undertake the kind of reforms they need to make their economy work," he told reporters after the G-20 meeting.

But underscoring the concern in the West about the possibility of acts of vengeance, the EU enlargement commissioner, Stefan Füle, said "it is essential to balance the need for justice with the spirit of compromise and unity."

Despite Mr. Yanukovych's defiance, it wasn't clear how much support he had within the country's government. The parliament also voted on Saturday to replace a string of key cabinet officials, including the defense and interior ministers, with opposition members.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement that "it serves only the Ukrainian people and fully shares the desire of citizens for immediate change." It called for cooperation from all sides to ensure public order. And the Defense Ministry said in a statement that it would "in no way be drawn into the political conflict."

Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak, a close ally of Mr. Yanukovych, handed in his resignation on Saturday ahead of the vote by lawmakers to replace him with Mr. Turchynov.

Dozens of legislators defected on Saturday from Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions, while a majority of those who remained voted for his ouster in the parliament vote, said Serhiy Tihipko, a senior party member. "We tried for a long time to reach him today but not a single phone worked, none of his aides, not anyone could be reached," Mr. Tihipko told reporters in the parliament. "Members of the party who were in parliament today felt abandoned."

"He should have the courage to resign," Mr. Tihipko said, noting that the party would find another candidate to run in the May elections if Mr. Yanukovych lacks support.

Meanwhile, Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion who is one of the most prominent leaders of the opposition, said Saturday's developments amounted to "a political knockout" for Mr. Yanukovych.

Protests against Mr. Yanukovych's government started in November when he shelved a partnership accord with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia, which promised financial assistance to the county. The protests quickly turned into broader antigovernment demonstrations after a crackdown on protesters.

In Kiev on Saturday, volunteer security brigades from among the protesters took over security at government buildings, and journalists reported around 300 people had entered Mr. Yanukovych's opulent suburban residence without resistance.

Oleh Tyahnybok, an opposition leader, called on parliament to adopt a resolution calling on police and protesters' "self-defense" forces to work to prevent looting in Kiev and other cities.

Dozens of protesters carrying sticks and shields stood protecting government buildings, including parliament and the security service's offices. Outside the cabinet of ministers building, four policemen stood on guard beside the protesters.

In Kharkiv, the largest city in eastern Ukraine, tensions flared into the evening, as a thin line of two dozen policemen separated two opposing groups of youngsters armed with makeshift clubs on the main city square.

About 100 men armed with wooden sticks guarded the statue of Lenin there, shouting: "Down with the fascists!" They were opposed by dozens with shields and bats, who retreated after a standoff of about half an hour to boos from onlookers. "They come in hordes from the west, from Kiev. They do it for American money. We hate them here," said Lyudmila Knyzh, a bookkeeper.

Away from the government district and the main square that has been the hub of protests in Kiev, the city was functioning largely as normal, with buses running and cafes open, including one near the front lines of clashes that had been closed for weeks.

Party of Regions and Communist Party members said some of their offices in other cities had been looted. But the mood in Kiev and other cities was largely peaceful.


Text by Wall Street Journal

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