KYIV, Ukraine — A top Ukrainian opposition figure assumed presidential powers Sunday, plunging Ukraine into new uncertainty after a deadly political standoff — and boosting long-jailed Yulia Tymoshenko’s chances of a return to power.
The whereabouts and legitimacy of President Viktor Yanukovych are unclear after he left the capital for his support base in eastern Ukraine. Allies are deserting him one by one, even as a presidential aide told The Associated Press on Sunday that he’s hanging on to his presidential duties.
The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled Sunday 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 European Union.
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 Yanukovych’s resignation.
The Kyiv protest camp at the centre of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators Sunday, setting up new tents after two days that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in the political crisis.
“We need to catch and punish those with blood on their hands,” said Artyom Zhilyansky, a 45-year-old engineer on Independence Square on Sunday, referring to those killed in clashes with police last week.
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided and controversial heroine of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, increasingly appears to have the upper hand in the political battle, winning the backing Sunday of a leading Russian lawmaker and congratulations from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. senators on her release.
Tymoshenko’s name circulated Sunday as a possibility for acting prime minister pending May 25 presidential elections, but she issued a statement Sunday 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 an excited crowd of 50,000 in central Kyiv Saturday night from a wheelchair because of a back problem aggravated during imprisonment, her voice cracked and her face careworn.
A spokeswoman for Tymoshenko, Marina Soroka, said Sunday it’s too early to talk about a presidential run. Tymoshenko met with several foreign diplomats Sunday, 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 Friday that a political settlement in Kyiv should ensure the country’s unity and personal freedoms.
But Rice also said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that it would be a “grave mistake” for Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
European diplomats helped negotiate a short-lived peace deal last week and the chief EU diplomat is coming to Kyiv on Monday.
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 $3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing political crisis.
The Kremlin has been largely silent about whether it still supports Yanukovych. Putin, who is presiding over the close of the Sochi Olympics, has not spoken about recent events in Kyiv. He had developed a productive working relationship with Tymoshenko when she was Ukraine’s prime minister.
Russian legislator Leonid Slutsky said Sunday that naming Tymoshenko prime minister “would be useful for stabilizing” tensions in Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies.
Russia’s finance minister on Sunday 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 organizing rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kyiv. 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 Sunday at which speakers called for Crimea’s secession, marched toward city hall chanting “Russia! Russia!” and tore down the Ukrainian flag. Marchers scuffled with the mayor and police officers who tried but failed to stop the crowd from hoisting a Russian flag in its place.
The political crisis in this nation of 46 million has changed with blinding speed repeatedly in the past week.
The parliament, in a special session Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to temporarily hand the president’s powers to speaker Oleksandr Turchinov. He is one of Tymoshenko’s most loyal allies, who stuck with her even as others deserted her in her roller coaster political career.
Tymoshenko is a divisive political survivor who drew criticism even as masses cheered her from the protest camp. Posters appeared Sunday equating her with Yanukovych, reading “people didn’t die for this.”
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko warned that getting the country under control won’t be easy, and hinted at possible turmoil to come.
“If new government falls short of expectations, people can come out and sweep them out of office,” he told journalists in parliament.
The legitimacy of the parliament’s flurry of decisions in recent days is under question. The votes are based on a decision Friday to return to a 10-year-old constitution that grants parliament greater powers. Yanukovych has not signed that decision into law, and he said Saturday that the parliament is now acting illegally.
However, legal experts said that de facto the parliament is now in charge.
Presidential aide Hanna Herman told The Associated Press on Sunday that Yanukovych was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv as of Saturday night and plans to stay in power. Still, Herman sought to distance herself from him Sunday.
So did members of his party, apparently seeking to save their political hides in a country suddenly in the hands of a pro-Western parliament.
The mayor of the eastern city of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, described Yanukovych on Sunday as “history.” A day after defending the president, the mayor said on Ukrainian television, “The country has no president.”
Ukrainians’ loyalties remain divided.
Protesters smashed portraits of Yanukovych and took down statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin in several towns and cities. On Sunday, some pro-Russian protesters took up positions to defend Lenin statues in Donetsk and Kharkiv. Statues of Lenin across the former U.S.S.R. are seen as a symbol of Moscow’s rule.
The past week has seen the worst violence in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago — 82 dead according to the Health Ministry, more than 100 according to protesters.
Thousands of Ukrainians flocked to the Kyiv protest camp known as the Maidan to pay their last respects to the scores killed in clashes with police, bearing flowers and lighting candles while Cossacks beat drums.
Nadezhda Kovalchuk, a 58-year-old food worker on the square, said they died “so that we would be free, for our freedom, so that we, our children and grandchildren would live well.”