KIEV, Ukraine — Speaking as if he still wielded authority here or in Moscow, deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych said Wednesday that he intends to press Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine.
“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” he told the Associated Press and Russia’s NTV television in Rostov-on-Don, not far from the Ukrainian border. It was his first interview since he fled Ukraine in February for sanctuary in Russia.
Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after backing pro-Russian forces that seized the parliament building in the Crimean regional capital of Simferopol on Feb. 27. A hastily arranged March 16 referendum there resulted in a vote to join Russia — a plebiscite considered illegitimate by most of the rest of the world.
Moscow has moved quickly to solidify its control over the region, issuing passports and installing the Russian legal system, showing no indication it would consider a request from any quarter to return Crimea to Ukraine.
Yanukovych left Kiev on Feb. 22, hours after agreeing to a deal that would have kept him in office until December, when early elections would have been held. Demonstrators had been camped out in the city’s Independence Square, which is known as the Maidan, since November, calling for his removal. The former president angered many Ukrainians when he refused to sign an arrangement that would have brought the country closer to the European Union. Instead, he said, Ukraine would strengthen economic ties with Russia.
Although the protests had begun over the association agreement with the E.U., they evolved into a demand for better government and a fight against deeply rooted corruption. After Yanukovych made his hasty departure, Ukrainians entered his country home, where they were shocked to find opulence that included gold-footed toilet fixtures.
The interim government that took office a few days later reported that Yanukovych and his cronies had looted the treasury, leaving it empty. It would be difficult to imagine his return to Ukraine unless he were to face criminal charges.
He holds no sway with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been contemptuous of Yanukovych on the grounds that he did not crack down hard enough on protesters. In his interview with the AP, however, Yanukovych denied ordering his police to shoot at protesters. More than 80 were killed in the days before he fled.
Although the interview Wednesday was his first since he turned up in Russia, Yanukovych has given two news conferences in Rostov. On Friday, his representatives distributed a statement from him to the news media, which led to gossip in Ukraine that he was dead.
In his first news conference, on Feb. 28, Yanukovych said he had no intention of asking Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine. But a day later, Yanukovych wrote to Putin asking for military intervention, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council. Russian troops were pouring into Crimea, although Putin denied they were Russian.
Yanukovych, 63, said Wednesday that he had been wrong to ask for Russian intervention. Crimea, he told the AP, would not have been lost had he remained in the presidency. He said he had spoken to Putin since his arrival in Russia, calling the conversation “difficult.”
“We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions,” he said, “so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible . . . but be part of Ukraine.”
Finally, Yanukovych denied that either he or his billionaire dentist son was corrupt, the AP reported. He was described as conceited when talking about the numerous and expensive antique cars found on his estate, but disclaimed any knowledge of a golden loaf of bread discovered there.