Hours after her release from prison, former Ukrainian Prime Minister and opposition figurehead Yulia Tymoshenko appeared before an ecstatic throng at the protester encampment in Ukraine’s capital today.
She praised the demonstrators killed in violence this week and urging the protesters to keep occupying the square.
Her speech to the crowd of about 50,000, made from a wheelchair because of the severe back problems she suffered in 2½ years of imprisonment, was the latest stunning development in the fast-moving Ukrainian political crisis.
Only a day earlier, her arch-rival, President Viktor Yanukovych, signed an agreement with protest leaders that cut his powers and called for early elections.
Parliament, once controlled by Mr Yanukovych’s supporters, quickly thereafter voted to decriminalize the abuse-of-office charge for which Ms Tymoshenko was convicted.
Mr Yanukovych meanwhile appeared to be losing power by the hour.
He decamped from Kiev to Kharkiv, a city in his support base in eastern Ukraine, while protesters took control of the presidential administration building and thousands of curious and contemptuous Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev where he was believed to live.
In Kharkiv, Mr Yanukovych defiantly declared that he regarded parliament’s actions as invalid and bitterly likened the demonstrators who conducted three months of protests against him to Nazis.
“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and banditry and a coup d’etat,” he said. “I will do everything to protect my country from breakup, to stop bloodshed.”
The reversal of fortune for both Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yanukovych was an eerie echo of the Orange Revolution of a decade ago – the mass protests that forced a rerun of a presidential election nominally won by Mr Yanukovych. Ms Tymoshenko attracted world attention as the most vivid of the protest leaders, her elaborate blond peasant braid making her instantly recognisable.
On Saturday, Ms Tymoshenko appeared close to exhaustion and her voice cracked frequently, but her flair for vivid words was undimmed.
“You are heroes, you are the best thing in Ukraine!” she said of those killed in the violence.
The Health Ministry on Saturday said the death toll in clashes between protesters and police that included sniper attacks had reached 82.
And she urged the demonstrators not to yield from their encampment in the square, known in Ukrainian as the Maidan.
“In no case do you have the right to leave the Maidan until you have concluded everything that you planned to do,” she said.
After the 2004 protests helped bring Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Ms Tymoshenko became prime minister. But when Mr Yanukovych won the 2010 election, Ms Tymoshenko was arrested and put on trial for abuse of office, an action widely seen as political revenge.
Her call for protests to continue and Mr Yanukovych’s defiance leaves unsettled the fate of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million of huge strategic importance to Russia, Europe and the United States.
The country’s western regions, angered by corruption in Mr Yanukovych’s government, want to be closer to the European Union and have rejected Mr Yanukovych’s authority in many cities.
Eastern Ukraine, which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output, favours closer ties with Russia and has largely supported the president.
The three-month protest movement was prompted by the president’s decision to abort an agreement with the EU in favour of a deal with Moscow.
“The people have won, because we fought for our future,” said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko to a euphoric crowd of thousands gathered on Kiev’s Independence Square. Beneath a cold, heavy rain, protesters who have stood for weeks and months to pressure the president to leave congratulated each other and shouted “Glory to Ukraine!”
“It is only the beginning of the battle,” Mr Klitschko said, urging calm and telling protesters not to take justice into their own hands.
The president’s support base crumbled further as a leading governor and a mayor from the eastern city of Kharkiv fled for Russia.
Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the border guard service, said that Kharkiv regional governor Mikhaylo Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Hennady Kernes left Ukraine across the nearby Russian border.
Today’s developments were the result of a European-brokered peace deal between the president and opposition.
But Mr Yanukovych said today that he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament over the past two days as a result of that deal. They include motions:
* Saying that the president removed himself from power;
* Setting new elections for May 25 instead of next year;
* Trimming the president’s powers;
* Naming a new interior minister after firing the old one yesterday;
* Releasing Ms Tymoshenko.
The decisions were passed with large majorities, including yes votes from some members of Mr Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which dominated Ukraine’s political scene until this week but is now swiftly losing support.
Russia came out today firmly against the peace deal, saying the opposition is not holding up its end of the agreement, which calls for protesters to surrender arms and abandon their tent camps.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called his German, French and Polish counterparts and urged them to use their influence with the Ukrainian opposition to stop what he described as rampages by its supporters. European officials urged calm.
Ukraine’s defence and military officials also called for Ukrainians to stay peaceful. In statements today, both the Defence Ministry and the chief of the armed forces said they will not be drawn into any conflict and will side with the people. But they did not specify whether they still support the president or are with the opposition.
In Kharkiv, governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian politicians and issued a statement saying that the events in Kiev have led to the “paralysis of the central government and destabilisation of the situation in the country”.
Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.
Anti-government protesters around the country took out their anger on statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, using ropes and crowbars to knock them off pedestals in several cities and towns. Statues of Lenin still stand across the former USSR, and they are seen as a symbol of Moscow’s rule.
The past week has seen the worst violence in Ukraine since the break-up of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. At Independence Square Saturday, protesters heaped flowers on the coffins of the dead.
“These are heroes of Ukraine who gave their lives so that we could live in a different country without Yanukovych,” said protester Viktor Fedoruk, 32. “Their names will be written in golden letters in the history of Ukraine.”