Uncertainty in Ukraine after deadly political stand-off

Flowers cover one of the barricades heading to Kiev's Independence Square on a day of mourning. Pic: AP

Ukraine was plunged into new uncertainty after a deadly political standoff — as a top opposition figure assumed presidential powers.

The whereabouts and legitimacy of Viktor Yanukovych were still unclear after he left the capital for his support base in eastern Ukraine. Allies are deserting him, even as a presidential aide told Associated Press he’s hanging on to his presidential duties.

The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled to work out who is in charge of the country and its ailing economy. Fears percolated that some regions such as the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea might try to break away. Three months of political crisis have left scores of people dead in a country of strategic importance to the United States, European nations and Russia.

Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the EU.

Yanukovych set off a wave of protests by shelving an agreement with the EU in November, and the movement quickly expanded its grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for his resignation.

The parliament speaker who assumed presidential powers, Yulia Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchinov, said in a televised address top priorities include saving the economy and “returning to the path of European integration”, according to Russian news agencies. He is quoted as urging calm and a return to order, and “a firm stance against any appearance of separatism and threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity”.

The Kiev protest camp at the centre of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators yesterday, setting up new tents after two days that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in the political crisis.

Tymoshenko’s name circulated yesterday as a possibility for acting prime minister pending May 25 presidential elections, but she issued a statement asking her supporters not to nominate her. She may want to focus her energies instead on campaigning for president and building up strength after her imprisonment. She spoke to a crowd of 50,000 in central Kiev on Saturday night from a wheelchair because of a back problem aggravated during imprisonment, her voice cracked and her face careworn.

Tymoshenko spokeswoman Marina Soroka said it’s too early to talk about a presidential run.

Tymoshenko met with several foreign diplomats yesterday, then headed to visit her mother and will return to work after that.

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, said he and Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed during a telephone conversation on Friday a political settlement in Kiev should ensure the country’s unity and personal freedoms. However, Rice also said yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press it would be a “grave mistake” for Russia to intervene militarily.

EU diplomats helped negotiate a short-lived peace deal last week and the chief European diplomat is coming to Kiev today.

Russia’s position will be important for the future of this country because the two have deep and complicated ties. Moscow in December offered Ukraine a $15 billion bailout, but so far has provided only $3bn, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the political crisis.

The Kremlin has been largely silent about whether it still supports Yanukovych. Putin, who presided over the close of the Sochi Olympics, has not spoken about recent events in Kiev. He had developed a productive working relationship with Tymoshenko when she was prime minister.

Russian legislator Leonid Slutsky said yesterday that naming Tymoshenko prime minister “would be useful for stabilising” tensions in Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. However, she has ruled out becoming prime minister again.

Russia’s finance minister urged Ukraine to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an imminent default.

Tensions mounted in Crimea, where pro-Russian politicians are organising rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kiev. Russia maintains a big naval base in Crimea that has tangled relations between the countries for two decades.

A crowd of pro-Russia demonstrators in the Crimean city of Kerch, following a rally yesterday at which speakers called for Crimea’s secession, marched toward city hall chanting “Russia! Russia!” and tore down the Ukrainian flag. Police officers tried, but failed to stop the crowd from hoisting a Russian flag in its place.


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