Ukraine’s jailed ex-premier Julia Tymoshenko was freed from prison Saturday and headed for the capital city of Kiev, supporters said, while embattled President Viktor Yanukovich left the capital city as parliament voted to remove him and called for a new presidential election April 25.
Yanukovich, who vowed not to resign from office, later appeared in an Internet clip calling his opponents “Nazis” and “bandits” and begging international observers and mediators to intervene.
Looking tense, the president said he had gone to Kharkiv, the stronghold of his ruling party only 25 miles from Russian border, after his “car was shot at.”
“The opposition is trying to scare me all the time with ultimatums,” Yanukovich said. “I am not going to resign. I am a legitimately elected president.”
Earlier in the day the Supreme Rada ruled to free Yanukovich's arch-enemy, Tymoshenko, from prison in Kharkiv. Her ally and opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk told reporters the news in the parliament building, which was surrounded by units of anti-Yanukovich protesters armed with metal shields and wooden sticks.
With no shots fired, opposition units also took control Saturday of the Council of Ministers building and the Presidential Administration building after discovering early in the morning that the riot police who had been guarding the sites were gone, an opposition leader said.
Protesters also reportedly took control of the presidential luxury residence at Mezhigorye near Kiev, opening parts of it to the public. By midday the road to Mezhigorye was completely clogged with thousands of cars of residents wishing to see how the president lived.
Yanukovich was expected to attend a congress of his supporters and allies Saturday in Kharkiv but didn’t appear.
Various governors, lawmakers and bureaucrats were present at the congress and vowed “to preserve the unity of Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, in Kiev, the parliament appointed an acting police chief who immediately invited opposition activists to patrol the streets of Kiev together with regular police officers.
“The decisions the lawmakers are taking now are all illegitimate,” Yanukovich said in his remarks. “I will not be signing anything with the bandits who are terrorizing today the entire country and the entire Ukrainian people.
“What is happening today is to a large degree vandalism, banditry and a state coup,” he said. “I will be doing my best to protect my country from breaking up, I will be doing my best to stop the bloodshed. I don't know yet how I will be doing it.”
Yanukovich said that foreign mediators had promised him safety and complained that his closest allies were being persecuted “at home, at work, on the road.”
Several of his closest allies, meanwhile, left the country. Kharkiv regional governor Mikhail Dobkin and Kharkiv Mayor Gennady Kernes left Ukraine on Saturday evening. On Friday, sacked Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharcheko, who had given the order to use brute force against protesters, reportedly fled to Belarus.
Yanukovich was not specific about his own plans but said that he will soon be traveling “along the southeast of the country which is not yet so dangerous.”
Analysts, however, said it is extremely unlikely he would retain power and his only concern now is for his own safety.
“It doesn't matter now how legal Yanukovich's removal from power was since revolutions are not exactly legal in many senses and what is happening in the streets of Kiev today is a real people's revolution,” Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute for Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview with The Times. “It is also the biggest geopolitical fiasco of [Vladimir] Putin in the last decade. Whoever advised Yanukovich to use brute force and shoot to kill dozens of people to scare others, grossly miscalculated the spirits of freedom and independence of Ukrainian people which they have been demonstrating for the last three months and especially for the last violent week.”
In fierce street fighting over the last week, more than 100 people, including more than a dozen police officers, were killed and hundreds more were injured. At least 20 were killed by sniper fire Thursday.
The release of Tymoshenko fully changes the political equation, Karasyov said.
Opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly "Klitschko made a serious mistake in the eyes of a majority of protesters when he was still trying to make a deal with Yanukovich and shook his hand after Thursday's bloodshed, and he most likely will have to forget about his immediate presidential ambitions,” Karasyov said.
“I am almost confident that Tymoshenko is our most likely next president; the crowd loves her again, she suits both the Kremlin and the West, she knows how to milk our oligarchs to make ordinary people happy, and she suffered greatly at the hands of Yanukovich.”
Despite funeral processions, a feeeling of festiveness pervaded Kiev on Saturday. For the first time in a week, protesters took off their flak jackets and protective helmets and also brought children to the main square. Shops also began to reopen.
“Kiev was occupied by bandits for a long time but good people fought with them and defeated them with clubs and swords,” said Daniil Nagorny, a 7-year-old boy, carrying a toy machine gun and wearing his father's protective bright orange helmet, who came with his parents to Independence Square to lay flowers. “Some heroes died and they need flowers now.”