Ukraine President Yanukovych’s aide says he isn't leaving as Ukraine ushers in new era

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 7:42pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 8:47pm

A Ukrainian presidential aide says Viktor Yanukovych is not planning to leave the country and will continue to fulfil his presidential duties.

Hanna Herman said on Sunday that Yanukovych was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv as of Saturday night.

Herman, once close to the president, sought to distance herself from him somewhat on Sunday. But she criticised opposition figures now dominating parliament for not paying enough heed to Yanukovych’s party.

Yanukovych’s whereabouts and legitimacy are unclear. The parliament handed presidential powers to the parliament speaker.

A new era opened in Ukraine on Sunday as parliament gave itself three days to form a new government after impeaching a defiant president Viktor Yanukovych and calling early elections following a week of carnage.

Yanukovych’s whereabouts remained a mystery amid claims he tried and failed to escape the country and was hiding out in the east, his historic power base, where localised, minor clashes erupted overnight.

But his rule appeared all but finished as journalists combed through his abandoned presidential residence looking for incriminating documents and the opposition-controlled parliament set a Tuesday deadline for the formation of a new government and appointed its own new speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, as interim president.

On Kiev’s Independence Square, where many people were killed this week, life creaked back to normal as onlookers filed through giant, makeshift barricades set up to keep security forces at bay after anti-government protests erupted in November.

Residents lay flowers on shrines to the fallen, some crying as they looked at their photos or at shields dotted with bullet holes - potent examples of the dramatic escalation in the protest movement this week that saw nearly 100 die in clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

US offers to help

Western countries cautiously welcomed the dizzying political changes sweeping Ukraine and began training their sights on its battered economy, which stands dangerously close to default.

At a G20 meeting in Sydney, the United States and International Monetary Fund offered to assist Ukraine in rebuilding its debt-laden economy, which has caused panic on the markets with bond yields rising sharply and the hryvnia currency dropping in value.

US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said the United States, working with other countries including Russia, “stands ready to assist Ukraine as it implements reforms to restore economic stability and seeks to return to a path of democracy and growth”.

The crisis in Ukraine kicked off in November when Yanukovych decided to ditch a key trade pact with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, angering pro-EU parts of the population who rose up in protest.

The unrest soon became a wider geopolitical tussle between Russia, which wants to keep reins on its historic fiefdom, and the European Union and United States, which want to bring the nation of 46 million people into the West’s fold.

Ukraine itself is broadly divided between the pro-Russia east and south, and the nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west.

According to media reports, some 40 statues of Lenin, the Soviet Union founder, had either been damaged or toppled over the past few days.

Meanwhile, a protest by pro-Russians was planned for Sunday afternoon in the southern port city of Sevastopol, which still houses Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Scuffles broke out in the eastern city of Kharkiv overnight, prompting concerns over the potential for broader unrest.

Mostly, though, Ukrainians were still reeling from the onslaught of change and violence unleashed over the past week.

After three days of deadly guerilla warfare in central Kiev, Yanukovych eventually signed a Western-brokered peace deal with the opposition on Friday in a bid to end the bloodshed.

A day later, the president left the capital, the police pledged its support to the “people”, the army said it would not get involved, members of his Regions Party changed camp and his ally lawmakers started deserting him, leaving parliament under opposition control.

Parliament promptly voted to oust Yanukovych and hold early presidential elections on May 25.

“This is a political knockout for Yanukovych,” said charismatic former boxer-turned-opposition leader Vitali Klitschko.

‘Ukraine of free men’

In another dramatic twist, parliament also voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, the fiery hero of the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution who had been sentenced to seven years in jail for “abuse of power” after Yanukovych’s election in 2010.

Upon release, the 53-year-old headed straight to Kiev and Independence Square, where she was greeted by an emotional, 50,000-strong crowd.

“I did not recognise Kiev, the burnt cars, the barricades, the flowers, but it’s another Ukraine, the Ukraine of free men,” she said, her chronic back problems forcing her to sit in a wheelchair, her face drawn after two-and-a-half years in jail.

The appearance of Yanukovych’s bitter foe on the square would have been unthinkable just a few days ago, much like the fate of the president himself.

Even Yanukovych’s closely guarded mansion near the capital became a free-for-all, city residents gawping in awe and anger at the luxury of a sprawling estate that featured a private zoo and a replica galleon floating on an artificial waterway.

Parliament voted to hand the residence back to the state.

One of Yanukovych’s country residences in the Carpathian Mountains was also opened up for all to see.

But still he remained defiant, appearing on television on Saturday to denounce a “coup” and vowing not to step down before trying and failing to fly out of the country, according to border police.