Ukraine lawmakers undo president’s government
Published: February 23, 2014 10:42PM
Updated: February 23, 2014 10:42PM

KIEV, Ukraine • A day after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the Ukrainian capital and was removed from power by a unanimous vote in parliament, lawmakers moved swiftly Sunday to dismantle the remaining vestiges of his government by firing top cabinet members, including the foreign minister.

With parliament, led by the speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, firmly in control of the federal government - if not yet the country as a whole - lawmakers began an emergency session Sunday by adopting a law restoring state ownership of Yanukovych’s opulent presidential palace, which he had privatized.

Parliament voted to grant Turchynov authority to carry out the duties of the president of Ukraine, adding to his authority to lead the government that lawmakers had approved Saturday.

Beyond that, parliament did not take any further action to appoint interim leaders, but speculation about an immediate major role for the freed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was squashed Saturday afternoon when she issued a statement asking not to be considered for the post again.

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“The information that I was proposed for the position of prime minister of Ukraine came as a surprise to me,” Tymoshenko said in a statement. “Nobody consulted or discussed this question with me. Thank you for the respect but I request that you not consider my candidacy for the post of the head of the government.”

Tymoshenko’s spokeswoman, Nataya Lysova, said that she had made no statement yet about running for president, and that it was premature to discuss a potential candidacy. Tymoshenko left Kiev on Sunday afternoon to visit her elderly mother in Dnepropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine.

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Depending on her health, Tymoshenko, who has complained of chronic back problems since she was jailed in 2011, may run for president in elections now scheduled for May 25, and many of her supporters are eager to build a campaign. In a sign of her still formidable political influence, Tymoshenko spoke by telephone Sunday with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as well as with Stefan Fule, a top European Union official, and with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn, and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. Tymoshenko also met with ambassadors from the United States and EU countries.

Critics, including a small crowd of demonstrators gathered outside parliament, said Tymoshenko should bow out, making way for a new generation of leaders.

Tymoshenko, long Yanukovych’s political rival, was released Saturday from a prison hospital in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and quickly made her way here to Kiev, the capital, where she appeared briefly in a wheelchair in Independence Square. Tymoshenko was jailed by Yanukovych after losing the presidential election in 2010. Many in Ukraine and the West believe that her conviction was politically motivated.

Andriy Shevchenko, a member of parliament and the leader of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, said that she would ultimately decide what role she envisioned for herself, based on her health.

“It really depends on whether she wants to run our not,” Shevchenko said in an interview. “I think she has enough strength to be active in politics.”

In Kiev, Tymoshenko received an enthusiastic but not overly exuberant reception from the crowd in Independence Square. The response demonstrated her continued popularity and status as a symbol of opposition to Yanukovych but also underscored the apprehension that many Ukranians feel toward politicians deeply connected to a government with a long history of corruption and mismanagement.

Yanukovych, meanwhile, whose whereabouts remained unknown, appeared to be losing the support of even his former allies. On Sunday, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which days ago enjoyed a majority in parliament, released a statement blaming him for the recent violence.

In the statement, the party said it strongly condemned what it called “criminal decrees,” which resulted in “human casualties, an empty treasury, huge debts and shame in the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the whole world.”

“All attempts to convince the president to act differently were ignored,” the statement said. “The party was virtually the hostage of one corrupt family.”

While parliament has dismissed a number of senior officials, the defense minister, Pavlo Lebedev told Ukraine’s Channel 24 that he intended to remain in his post, and the military issued statements that seemed to offer assurance that no steps would be taken to interfere with the provisional government.

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A statement posted on the Defense Ministry website Saturday, after Yanukovych’s departure, and attributed to the ministry and the military, reaffirmed the military’s commitment to the constitution and expressed sorrow over the deaths in Kiev last week.

“Please be assured that the Armed Forces of Ukraine cannot and will not be involved in any political conflict,” the statement said.

In a separate statement, the military chief of staff, Yuriy Ilyin, who was just recently appointed by Yanukovych, said, “As an officer I see no other way than to serve the Ukrainian people honestly and assure that I have not and won’t give any criminal orders.”

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It is not yet clear whether Ukrainians in the southern and eastern regions of the country, which host the bulk of the country’s industrial infrastructure as well as the heaviest concentration of pro-Russian sentiment, would resist the change of government in Kiev. In several cities, including Donetsk and Kharkiv, pro-Russian demonstrators took to the streets Sunday, and there have been scattered reports of clashes between pro-Russian Ukrainians and supporters of the protests in Kiev.

Several lawmakers expressed rising alarm over Ukraine’s perilous economic situation. The Russian government in December had come to Yanukovych’s rescue with a $15 billion bailout and an offer of cheaper prices on natural gas.

A $2 billion installment of that aid was canceled as part of a deal reached Friday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. Western officials have said they hope to offer assistance, but it is unclear how quickly that help might arrive.

Among the reasons Yanukovych turned away from signing political and trade accords with Europe in November was his unwillingness to carry out painful austerity measures and other reforms that had been demanded by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a large assistance package.

On Sunday, the Fund’s managing director, Christine Lagarde, said that there was concern about the political instability in Ukraine and that the fund could only provide assistance in response to a formal request.

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Speaking at the end of a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Sydney, Lagarde said, “If the Ukrainian authorities were to ask for IMF support, whether it is policy advice, whether it is financial support together with economic reform discussions, we would be ready to do that.”

But, she said, “We need to have somebody to talk to because any discussion takes two.”

Lagarde added that an economic program to help Ukraine had to be “owned by the authorities, by the people, because at the end of the day it will be the future of the Ukrainian economy.”

The IMF has extended help to Ukraine in the past, but has expressed reluctance to do so again because the Ukrainian government repeatedly failed to carry out agreed-upon reforms.

The reassertion of state ownership over the presidential palace Sunday was a highly symbolic action by parliament to show that lawmakers shared the public’s rage against Yanukovych, who appeared briefly on television Saturday and insisted that he was still the duly elected president.

After the residence, which is in a national park, was abandoned by Yanukovych and then opened to the Ukrainian public, visitors reacted with outrage and dismay at the astonishing display of wealth and excess, including separate collections of modern and antique cars and a private zoo.

The vote to reclaim the palace was 323 to 0, with at least 106 lawmakers absent, most of them members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which had controlled parliament until its leaders fled Saturday and then were dismissed from their posts in similarly lopsided votes.

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In a series of votes Sunday, the parliament dismissed the foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara; the education minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, and the health minister, Raisa Bogatyrova.

Parliament, led by Turchynov, has been moving swiftly to rebuild the government.

Arsen Avakov, who was installed by parliament Saturday as interior minister, told reporters Sunday that an investigation had been opened into 30 or more officials who may have been responsible for the violence last week in which more than 70 people were killed on the streets of Kiev.

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Throughout central Kiev on Sunday people continued to lay flowers and place candles at memorials to the dead demonstrators.

Avakov also said that border guards on Saturday had prevented the departure of a plane in eastern Ukraine with Yanukovych aboard.

During her time in government, Tymoshenko had also maintained a working relationship with Russia, which many Ukrainians blame for pressing Yanukovych into backing away from sweeping political and free trade agreements with the European Union, which first set off Ukraine’s civil unrest in November.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia had once said that Tymoshenko was welcome to travel to Russia from prison for medical treatment. Shevchenko, of the Fatherland Party, said that Tymoshenko had strongly advocated Ukraine’s integration with Europe and would sign the accords that Yanukovych scuttled.

“I know if Yulia goes back to the government or becomes president, she will definitely be pro-Western,” he said.

Putin spoke with Merkel by telephone Sunday about the situation in Ukraine. According to a statement on the chancellor’s website, both leaders agreed that Ukraine’s “territorial integrity must be respected.”

Also on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, and urged Russia to work with the United States and Europe to help Ukraine through the current crisis, according to a senior U.S. State Department official.

Kerry said that the actions of Ukraine’s parliament to set up an interim government “offer the best and most promising path forward to restore peace and stability to Ukraine quickly, and to address Ukraine’s pressing financial challenges,” the official said.

Although there has been some concern in Kiev about the possibility of Russian military action in response to the events of recent days, there was no indication from the Russian government that it had any intention of intervening.

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Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, said Sunday that the United States was prepared to work with the EU and the IMF, as well as Russia, to shore up Ukraine’s nascent government. Speaking on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” Rice said that the United States hoped to see constitutional change and democratic elections in Ukraine “in very short order,” and she added that it “would be a grave mistake” for Russia to interfere militarily.

“It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or of the United States to see the country split,” she said. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return.”