KIEV, Ukraine -- Abandoned by his own guards and reviled across the Ukrainian capital but still determined to recover his shredded authority, President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev on Saturday to denounce what he called a violent coup, as his official residence, his vast, colonnaded office complex and other once impregnable centers of power fell without a fight to throngs of joyous citizens stunned by their triumph.
While Yanukovych’s nemesis, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from a penitentiary hospital, Parliament found the president unable to fulfill his duties and exercised its constitutional powers to set an election for May 25 to select his replacement. But with both Yanukovych and his Russian patrons speaking of a coup carried out by bandits and hooligans, it was far from clear that the day’s lightning-quick events would be the last act in a struggle that has not just convulsed Ukraine but expanded into an East-West confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War.
At the presidential residence a short distance from the capital, protesters carrying clubs and some wearing masks were in control of the entryways Saturday morning and watched as thousands of citizens strolled through the grounds in wonder.
“This commences a new life for Ukraine,” said Roman Dakus, a protester-turned-guard, who was wearing a ski helmet and carrying a length of pipe as he blocked a doorway at the compound. “This is only a start,” he added. “We need now to make a new structure and a new system, a foundation for our future, with rights for everybody, and we need to investigate who ordered the violence.”
With the riot police they battled for days having disappeared, the protesters claimed to be in charge of security for the city. There was no sign of looting, either in the city proper or in the presidential compound.
A pugnacious Yanukovych appeared on television Saturday afternoon, apparently from the eastern city of Kharkiv, near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia, saying he had been forced to leave the capital because of a coup, and that he had not resigned and had no plans to. He said indignantly that his car had been fired upon as he drove away.
“I don’t plan to leave the country. I don’t plan to resign,” he said, speaking in Russian rather than Ukrainian, the country’s official language. “I am a legitimately elected president. What is happening today, mostly, it is vandalism, banditism and a coup d’état.”
He also complained of traitors among his own former supporters, but he declined to name them.
Regional governors from eastern Ukraine met in Kharkiv and adopted a resolution resisting the authority of Parliament. They said that until matters were resolved, “we have decided to take responsibility for safeguarding the constitutional order, legality, citizens’ rights and their security on our territories.”
Yanukovych said in his television appearance that he would be traveling to the southeastern part of Ukraine to talk to his supporters – a plan that carried potentially ominous overtones. The southeast is the location of the Crimea, the historically Russian section of the country that is the site of a Russian naval base.
The president’s departure from Kiev, just a day after a peace deal with the opposition that he had hoped would keep him in office until at least December, capped three months of street protests and a week of frenzied violence in the capital that left more than 75 protesters dead. It turned what began in November as a street protest driven by pro-Europe chants and nationalist songs into a momentous but still ill-defined revolution.
With nobody clearly in charge, other than the so far remarkably disciplined fighting squads, lieutenants of Tymoshenko moved to fill the power vacuum. With Oleksandr Turchynov, a former acting prime minister and close ally of Tymoshenko’s, presiding over the Parliament, her Fatherland party seemed to be in charge, at least temporarily.
With a veto-proof majority of more than 300 of the 450 seats, Turchynov guided the Parliament through the constitutional process of declaring the president unable to fulfill his duties and setting a date for new elections.
Tymoshenko herself, who was jailed by Yanukovych after losing the presidential election in 2010, was released Saturday evening from the penitentiary hospital in eastern Ukraine where she had been held, her representatives said. Many Ukrainians believe her conviction was politically motivated and regard her as something of a martyr to their cause. Late Saturday she appeared on the stage in the Maidan square in a wheelchair and delivered a speech that was greeted by cheers and chants of “Yulia! Yulia!”
Though obviously in poor health, she is widely expected to run for president in the coming election, if it is held as scheduled.
But with Yanukovych roaming around eastern Ukraine trying to rally support and with the economy in free fall, the country seemed certain to face severe new challenges in the months ahead.
Adding to the combustible mix was uncertainty over the intentions of Russia, which now faces the loss of a key ally in a former Soviet republic and the prospect of a new government led by people it scorned as terrorists and fascists in what it considers a critical part of its own sphere of influence.
It was possibly with the Kremlin in mind that the White House issued a statement Saturday welcoming the changes and stressing that, “The unshakable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future.”
U.S. officials said President Vladimir Putin of Russia told President Barack Obama in a telephone call Friday that he would work toward resolving the crisis, but his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, did not sound as conciliatory. In a telephone call, he told the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, who helped mediate a short-lived peace deal agreed to Friday, that opposition leaders who signed the accord with Yanukovych had reneged on their commitments and were “following the lead of armed extremists and pogromists, whose actions pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty and constitutional order.”