Ukraine ushers in new era as president flees

Posted at 02/24/2014 7:17 AM | Updated as of 02/24/2014 7:17 AM

KIEV - A new era dawned in Ukraine on Sunday as parliament appointed a pro-Western interim leader after ousted president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev to escape retribution for a week of deadly carnage.

The ex-Soviet state's tumultuous three-month crisis culminated in a dizzying flurry of historic changes over the weekend that saw parliament sideline the pro-Russian head of state and call a new presidential poll for May 25.

Lawmakers then went a step further by approving the release from her seven-year jail sentence of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- a star of the 2004 Orange Revolution who was thrown behind bars less than a year after Yanukovych came to power in 2010.

The constitutional legitimacy of parliament's actions remains an open question and Yanukovych vowed in a taped interview to fight the "bandits" who now claimed to rule Ukraine.

But Yanukovych's authority was nowhere in evidence in Kiev on Sunday. The city's police presence had vanished and protesters were in control of everything from traffic management to protection of government buildings after a week of bloodshed that claimed nearly 100 lives.

Hundreds of candles and a field of red carnations and roses lay across spots of central Kiev where many of the protesters were mowed down by police snipers in clashes that left the nation of 46 million in shock.

But Ukraine's new leader received their first crucial votes of confidence from Western powers on Sunday even as Russia showed growing signs of displeasure and concern.

Both Washington and European leaders vowed to drum up aid that could pull Ukraine out of a crisis sparked in November when Yanukovych spurned a historic EU deal and later secured a $15-billion bailout for the struggling nation from its old master Russia.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice also bluntly warned Russia that sending in troops to restore a more Kremlin-friendly leadership in Kiev "would be a grave mistake".

- 'Government of the people' -

Lawmakers voted on Sunday to name close Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov -- himself only appointed parliament speaker on Saturday in place of a veteran Yanukovych supporter -- as interim president tasked with forming a new government by Tuesday.

Turchynov immediately vowed to draw up a "government of the people" and warned Russia that he expected the Kremlin to respect his country's pivot.

"We are ready for a dialogue with Russia... that recognises and takes into account Ukraine's European choice," the 49-year-old said in a television address.

Yanukovych was dealt another blow when his own Regions Party condemned him for issuing "criminal orders" that led to so many deaths.

Parliament also voted to dismiss Ukraine's Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara after sacking the federal police chief and prosecutor general on Saturday.

- West offers help -

Western countries gave cautious but vital backing to the sweeping changes while Russia once again warned that payment of its huge bailout package was on hold.

Ukraine owes nearly $13 billion in debt payments this year -- money it cannot drum up on financial markets because of prohibitively expensive borrowing costs.

Turchynov warned on Sunday that Ukraine was "rolling toward an (economic) abyss".

But US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew told a G20 meeting in Sydney that Washington now "stands ready to assist Ukraine as it implements reforms".

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said a "bankrupt Ukraine was too much of a weight" for the European Union and "terms and possibilities of stabilising Ukraine economically" needed to be worked out.

- Fears of Russian tanks -

European powers also took steps to halt any potential retaliation from the Kremlin following the swift and unanticipated fall of a leader who had been backed up personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she and Putin agreed on the need to preserve Ukraine territorial integrity -- a reference to the deep cultural fissure that runs between the pro-European west of the country and its far more Russified east.

European concern about the vast country's breakup also resurfaced when French President Francois Hollande issued a statement stressing that Ukraine's territorial integrity "must be respected".

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague also stressed that it was "very important for us to continue to try to persuade Russia that this need not be a zero-sum game."

"Any external duress on Ukraine any more than we've seen in recent weeks... it really would not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing," Hague said when asked about the possibility of Russia sending in tanks.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will fly to Kiev on Monday for to two-day visit that will aim to assure Kiev's new leaders of EU support.

But Russia's anxiety about the fast-paced changes were underscored late on Sunday when the foreign ministry said it was recalling ambassador Mikhail Zurabov "due to the escalation of the situation in Ukraine".

- Tymoshenko for president? -

The whereabouts of Yanukovych himself meanwhile remained a mystery amid speculation that he was hiding out in the pro-Russian east.

Turchynov and Ukraine's border service both said Yanukovych had been prevented from fleeing the country out of the eastern city of Donetsk because his charter plane did not have the required paperwork.

But attention of world leaders was quickly shifting to Tymoshenko amid mounting speculation that the former premier had the best chance of uniting the opposition for a presidential bid.

Tymoshenko -- who had appeared before the crowd in a wheelchair on Saturday because of back problems -- held telephone talks with Merkel and also met Western ambassadors in Kiev.

Her spokeswoman stressed that the 53-year-old -- charismatic but also dogged by allegations of corruption from when she was twice prime minister -- had made no decision about running in May.

"This is not the right time for this," spokeswoman Natalia Lysova told AFP.

The opposition's main presidential challenge had until this weekend been primarily expected to come from boxer-turned-lawmaker Vitali Klitschko.

The popular UDAR (Punch) party leader had initially announced his presidential ambitions in October. But he backtracked from those comments on Sunday in an apparent concession to Tymoshenko's continued public appeal.

"My main goal is not to take the chair of president," Klitschko told the BBC.