Ukraine’s parliament votes to oust president; former prime minister is freed from prison

In a single climactic day, the political order of Ukraine was overturned, more or less peacefully, when the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday evening to dismiss President Viktor Yanukovych from office and to free jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who went directly from a prison hospital bed to a stage at Independence Square to address an audience of tens of thousands.

“A day for the history books,” tweeted Geoffrey Pyatt, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Ukraine’s legislature on Sunday voted to give interim presidential powers to the speaker of parliament, the Associated Press reports.

Still unknown is whether a defiant Yanukovych and a bitterly divided Ukraine will accept any of parliament’s decrees. Leaders of the ousted government, especially those from Ukraine’s east and south, said they would oppose new measures.

Just hours after parliament voted to remove the president, his arch rival Tymoshenko, a key figure in Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, was released from prison after serving 30 months.

Tymoshenko, suffering from a back injury, was rolled onstage in a pink wheelchair. She gave an emotional, forceful speech, honoring the 82 Ukrainians killed in street fighting and by riot police since Tuesday.

The opposition leader, who still has her trademark blond braid, said that Ukraine would not be truly free until “everyone bears a responsibility for what they have done,” a clear reference to the president and his ousted interior minister, who controlled the riot police forces that used live ammunition against protesters. “If we don’t prosecute, we should be ashamed.”

She told the crowd, “You changed everything — not the politicians, not the diplomats, you changed the world,” and called the ousted government “a cancer.”

Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, was sentenced to seven years in prison in a 2011 trial on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement over her role in a deal to purchase natural gas from Russia. Her supporters and many Western countries said the trial and conviction were politically motivated.

In an emergency session, the Ukrainian parliament voted 380 to 0 on Saturday to remove Yanukovych from office, saying he was guilty of gross human rights violations and dereliction of duty. Many of Yanukovych’s allies were absent or abstained from voting.

Then the parliament, now dominated by opposition politicians, declared that early presidential elections would be held May 25.

Thousands filled Kiev’s Independence Square, which is still ringed by barricades erected by protesters and members of the “self-defense” militias, whose members kept order and continued to march in military columns, brandishing homemade metal shields and carrying wooden clubs and axes on their shoulders.

Tymoshenko, who blinked back tears several times, promised: “I am coming back to work. I won’t waste a minute to make sure you are happy in your own land.”

She ran for president in 2010 but lost to Yanukovych, and most people here assume Tymoshenko will run in the May contest.

Yanukovych, his exact whereabouts unknown since Friday evening, appeared on television Saturday afternoon in a prerecorded interview to say: “I am not planning to leave the country. I am the legitimate president, and I am not going to resign.”

He called the opposition politicians in parliament “bandits” and their actions “illegal,” and described the protesters as “hooligans.”

“What we witness now resembles Nazi occupation,” Yanukovych said. “My car was shot at. But I am not afraid for my life, I am afraid for my country.”

Yanukovych said Russian President Vladimir Putin told him that he had spoken with President Obama and promised that “we will negotiate.”

But the White House released a statement that praised the “constructive work” done by the Ukrainian parliament and urged “the prompt formation of a broad, technocratic government of national unity.”

The statement also applauded Tymoshenko’s release from prison, saying, “We wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought.” It did not mention Yanukovych.

“We have been monitoring the situation very closely,” said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because conditions remained so fluid. “What the United States and our European partners have been advocating for consistently this week is a ­de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government and early elections. The developments we are seeing on the ground are . . . moving us closer to those goals.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the opposition in Ukraine was “pushing new demands, submitting itself to armed extremists and looters whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order of Ukraine,” according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Ukrainians awoke Saturday morning to rumors and reports that Yanukovych had fled the country, though he is now thought to have returned to his home base in the country’s east.

The new speaker of parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov, told his fellow deputies Saturday that Yanukovych had attempted to flee the country.

“He tried to get on a plane that was bound for the Russian Federation but was stopped by border guards. At the moment, he’s hiding somewhere in the Donetsk region,” Turchynov said, according to Interfax. The Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine, is home to Yanukovych’s Russian-speaking political base.

Police surrendered the center of Kiev to protesters, who commandeered water cannon trucks and personnel carriers from retreating security forces and claimed full control of the city.

The self-defense militias, composed of hard-core protesters wearing military surplus helmets and mismatched body armor, were enlisted to guard government buildings and direct traffic. The city was peaceful.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians poured onto the grounds of Yanukovych’s abandoned presidential compound, 12 miles from downtown Kiev, to gawk at the manicured lawns, small zoo, golf course, botanical gardens and classic cars.

Museum officials were working with militias to guard the presidential mansion and inventory possessions and works of art they say were probably borrowed or stolen by Yanukovych from state museums and institutions. Journalists and others began to pore over a stack of documents left behind.

“Who knows what he has stashed in there,” said Ihor Lihovy, a consultant for the Ukrainian national committee for the preservation of national treasures. “We have been told he hoarded masterpieces. It is a scandal.”

Yanukovych built his mansion and its outbuildings after he was elected president in 2010. None of the Ukrainian public or media had seen the inside of the compound before Saturday. An elderly pensioner with a mouth full of metal teeth shouted, “What a thief!” as he took in the marble statuary.

The crowds were orderly and polite. There was no looting, few were allowed to enter the houses or outbuildings, and opposition protesters warned visitors to keep off the grass.

A group of young people, however, found their way into Yanukovych’s clubhouse and brought out golf balls and clubs and whacked a few drives down the long fairways.

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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