Ukraine’s parliament voted on Saturday to remove President Viktor Yanukovich, who abandoned his Kiev office to protesters and denounced what he described as a coup after a week of fighting in the streets of the capital.
Parliament also freed his arch-nemesis, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who walked free from the hospital where she had been jailed, completing a radical transformation in the former Soviet republic of 46 million people.
The apparent toppling of the pro-Russian leader, after bloodshed in Kiev that saw 82 people killed and the centre of the capital transformed into an inferno, looks likely to pull Ukraine away from Moscow’s orbit and closer to Europe.
It is also a stark reversal for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of recreating as much as possible of the Soviet Union in a new Eurasian Union, in which Moscow had counted on Yanukovich to deliver Ukraine as a central member.
Members of the Ukrainian parliament, which abandoned Yanukovich after this week’s bloodshed, stood, applauded and sang the national anthem after it declared the president constitutionally unable to carry out his duties and set an early election for May 25.
As night fell, 30,000 opposition supporters on Kiev’s Independence Square, scene of nearly three months of protests, were in buoyant mood. "People can taste freedom and take off their flak jackets," said Vasily, 40, a builder.
There was sadness too as coffins were displayed in front of the crowd and priests said prayers. People crossed themselves in front of makeshift shrines with candles and pictures of the dead. Two captured water cannon trucks were parked in the square like trophies of war.
In an emotional speech after she was carried on to a stage in a wheelchair, Tymoshenko told the protesters on the square, known as the Maidan: "You have no right to leave the Maidan ... Don’t stop yet."
The Ukrainian cabinet said it was committed to a responsible transfer of power.
Ukrainian military and police leaders said they would not get involved in any internal conflict. The interior ministry responsible for the police said it served "exclusively the Ukrainian people and fully shares their strong desire for speedy change".
Yanukovich, who enraged much of the population by turning away from the European Union to cultivate closer relations with Russia three months ago, made sweeping concessions in a deal brokered by European diplomats on Friday after days of street battles that saw police snipers gun down protesters.
But the deal, which called for early elections by the end of the year, was not enough to satisfy pro-Europe demonstrators on Independence Square, who wanted Yanukovich out immediately in the wake of the bloodletting.
On Saturday, the speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich loyalist, resigned and parliament elected Oleksander Turchynov, a close ally of Tymoshenko, as his replacement.
"Today he left the capital," Klitschko said of Yanukovich at an emergency session of parliament. "Millions of Ukrainians see only one choice - early presidential and parliamentary elections."