Ukrainian lawmakers voted to hold elections May 25 and remove President Viktor Yanukovych, who was stopped from fleeing the country by the border service after vowing not to resign.
As protesters took control of central Kiev, Yanukovych called recent events a “coup d’etat” in an interview with UBR television from an undisclosed location. Ex-Premier Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison and announced a bid for the presidency to a cheering crowd, while Russia said Ukraine’s opposition was threatening the nation’s sovereignty and order.
Parliament approved a motion to remove Yanukovych 328 to zero in the 450-seat chamber. In downtown Kiev, where clashes this week killed at least 77 people, activists were unopposed by police. Ukraine’s army and Interior Ministry said they wouldn’t get involved and customs officials stopped the president’s plane from leaving the country in the eastern Donetsk region, news service Interfax reported.
“Today a dictatorship fell,” Tymoshenko told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters on Kiev’s Independence Square, scene of the worst fighting. “A new epoch has started - an epoch of free people, of a free European Ukraine.”
Yanukovych left for the eastern city of Kharkiv yesterday after signing a deal with the opposition to end the bloodiest episode of the country’s post-World War II history.
With protesters guarding key buildings in the center of Kiev, lawmakers in parliament appointed a new speaker, who will also coordinate the government’s activities until a new cabinet is named. They also replaced the head of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the security forces.
The peace agreement, unveiled yesterday after all-night talks in Kiev with European Union foreign ministers, envisioned a national unity government within 10 days. Lawmakers approved a return to the 2004 constitution, which would curb Yanukovych’s authority, and voted to free Tymoshenko.
After leaving a hospital where she was under guard, she made her way to the protesters’ camp in Kiev.
“Ukraine is now a free Ukraine,” Tymoshenko said. She urged protesters to stay in the square, or Maidan, also the epicenter of the 2004 Orange Revolution. “We are obliged to bring Yanukovych back to Maidan,” she said.
Lawmakers also passed measures to bring those behind the violence to justice. After his plane was grounded, Yanukovych left the airport in a car and didn’t appear at another border crossing, Interfax reported, citing Serhiy Astakhov, aide to the head of the State Customs Service. Former Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, a minister under Yanukovych, was also caught trying to flee, Interfax reported today, citing customs.
In Kiev’s northern outskirts, thousands of Ukrainians converged on Yanukovych’s residence. Hundreds of cars thronged the entrance, while people rode bikes and carried children around the compound. Previously closed to visitors, it boasted a man-made lake as large as several football fields with a life-sized galleon and a zoo with deer, ostriches, peacocks and other animals. Next to a towering mansion, a garage housed antique cars, motorcycles and at least seven limousines, according to images on website Censor.net.
Activists prevented people from entering the mansion. They recovered reams of paper documents that had been thrown into the pond and dried them in a building full of boats and a miniature hovercraft, according to images shown on Hromadske TV.
In central Kiev, hundreds of people marched in processions bearing the coffins of activists killed in this week’s clashes shouting ‘Glory! Glory! Glory!’’ Marchers wept as the coffins were put in trucks to be taken for burial. Orthodox priests chanted prayers from the stage at the protesters’ tent encampment that has been the epicenter of the crisis.
“This man died for you,” Vitaly Kulakovsky, a 43-year-old supply manager shouted, sobbing openly in front of a coffin. “It could have been me. Remember, he died for us, for our lives to be different.”
Nearby, thousands of protesters continued to re-enforce barricades and direct downtown traffic in the absence of police. Many families posed for pictures around barriers, burnt-out vehicles and a make-shift catapult that protesters designated as a future museum piece. Shops, including those of Diesel and United Benetton Group Spa, reopened after being closed during the violence.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who helped negotiate the peace agreement signed by Yanukovych and the opposition, said there was “no coup in Kiev” and that parliament is acting legally.
The president has 24 hours to sign constitutional changes adopted yesterday into law, Sikorski said on Twitter. Yanukovych said he wouldn’t sign any acts recently passed by the parliament, which he deems illegal.
The U.S. White house welcomed Tymoshenko’s release and urged “the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity” in Ukraine.
“The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future,” the press secretary’s office said in an e-mailed statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his “gravest concern” about the opposition’s “inability to negotiate,” according to a statement on his ministry’s website.
The “opposition not only failed to fulfill any of its obligations but puts forth new requirements, following the lead of armed extremists and thugs whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order in Ukraine,” Lavrov said, according to the statement.
The staff of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security forces, “stresses it is on the side of the Ukrainian nation,” according to a website statement. The military and the Defense Ministry said they would “remain faithful to the people.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague agreed with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to support a new government in Ukraine and push for a “vital” International Monetary Fund Financing package, the British official said in a Twitter post today.
The crisis erupted Nov. 21, when Yanukovych rejected an EU integration pact and opted instead for $15 billion of Russian aid. Violence intensified this week in Kiev amid frustration among protesters that their demands for immediate elections and governance changes were being ignored.
Yanukovych will be given no assurances on his fate, said Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads Tymoshenko’s party. Vitali Klitschko, the former world boxing champion who heads the opposition UDAR party, said those responsible for the bloodshed would be held to account.
The street fighting prompted EU governments to threaten sanctions on Ukrainian officials and send envoys to hammer out the peace deal. The crisis has taken its toll on the economy in Ukraine, whose gas pipelines are a key east-west transit route for energy. The country has endured three recessions since 2008.
Ukrainian stocks and bonds rebounded yesterday on prospects of a resolution. The yield on the Ukrainian government’s dollar bonds due 2023 fell 96 basis points to 10.136 percent, having reached a record-high 11.42 percent two days before, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The UX Index of equities gained for a second day.
Standard & Poor’s warned yesterday that Ukraine risks default without “significantly favorable changes” in its political crisis and cut its credit rating to CCC, eight levels below investment grade. OAO Sberbank (SBER) is seeing a run on its automated teller machines in Ukraine, German Gref, the head of Russia’s No. 1 lender, told reporters yesterday in Moscow.
Russia has halted the $15 billion bailout for its neighbor because of the unrest. Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said yesterday in an interview in Hong Kong that Russia has “many questions” on how Ukraine can repay the aid.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone for an hour yesterday, with the conversation focused on the need to ensure Ukraine’s economic and political stability, according to a U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
To contact the reporters on this story: Kateryna Choursina in Kiev at email@example.com; Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com