Ukraine rushes to shift power after president's ouster

KIEV, Ukraine — The foes of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych took swift, bold action Sunday to consolidate power and transform the government, sacking ministers, freeing jailed protesters and announcing detentions of former officials.

By decree, the nation's Parliament gave interim presidential authority to the new speaker, Oleksandr Turchinov, a leader of the opposition.

Turchinov quickly delivered some sobering news: The economy was in a shambles, and the government coffers empty. Ukraine's pension fund, currency and banking system were facing "immense problems," he said, according to the news agency RIA Novosti.

Sunday's actions brought the latest dramatic changes to a country convulsed by protests since Yanukovych reversed course on a trade agreement with the European Union three months ago and turned to Russia for economic aid. Since then, more than 80 people have died in demonstrations and clashes with riot police and security forces, which culminated in the president's removal in a parliamentary vote on Saturday.

Even as demonstrators in Kiev celebrated Sunday, there were signs of trouble in parts of Ukraine that lean more toward Russia than Europe. In the southern Crimean region, men gathered to volunteer for militias to oppose the decrees announced in the capital.

There has been no word from Yanukovych since a short prerecorded interview aired Saturday morning on Ukrainian television, in which he blasted his removal as "illegal" and refused to resign. Border police said they stopped his plane in Donetsk on Saturday as he was trying to leave the country.

Yanukovych's whereabouts remain unknown, even to members of his party.

Legislators said Sunday that they urgently needed to form an interim unity government, leading up to elections they have called for May 25. But in their rush, they got ahead of themselves.

The lawmakers put forth the name of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as a possible candidate for the premiership. But she quickly said she was not interested in the job and hadn't been consulted.

Even Yanukovych's allies began to turn against their former boss, blaming him for the crisis.

Oleksandr Yefremov, a leader of Yanukovych's Party of Regions, said he "strongly condemns the criminal orders that led to human victims, an empty state treasury, huge debts and the shame before the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the entire world."

Vitali Klitschko, an opposition leader in Parliament, said: "Millions of Ukrainians want to know where is the president. He's disappeared. So we have a new one."

The White House found itself in the dark as well. "He's gone," national security adviser Susan Rice said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "He took his stuff, his furniture with him. … Yesterday we knew where he was; today we're not so sure."

Rice said that the Ukrainian economy was "very, very fragile" and that the U.S. government would work with the International Monetary Fund on assistance. EU officials also have indicated that they are ready to offer financial aid to the new government.

Ukraine's interim government faces huge problems, even beyond the teetering economy.

"There are no police on the streets right now," Klitschko told reporters. "The police will be reorganized, and we will try to do this as fast as possible."

Another member of Parliament warned his colleagues that they needed to work quickly to bring Ukraine's security forces back to work, saying that some of the nation's vital infrastructure, including nuclear power plants, was unguarded.

Among the unknowns Sunday was how Russia would react to the swift change in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that Moscow regards as a vital strategic interest. In December, Russia had signed a deal with Yanukovych promising a $15 billion support package for Ukraine. The move toward Russian aid fueled the protests in Kiev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by telephone Sunday about the developments in Ukraine, according to the Interfax news agency. The EU foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, is scheduled to arrive in Kiev today. William Hague, the British foreign secretary, told the BBC on Sunday, "We don't know, of course, what Russia's next reaction will be."

In Kiev, members of the opposition announced that protesters arrested during the demonstrations would be freed immediately, while they also sought to detain and prosecute the dismissed prosecutor general, Viktor Pshonka.

The interim interior minister, Arsen Avakov, promised that the government would open an inquiry into the use of lethal force by riot police and security forces.

Parliament delighted many citizens by announcing Sunday that the government would confiscate the ousted president's opulent estate on the outskirts of Kiev.

Ukrainians lay flowers and pay their respects Sunday at a memorial in Kiev for antigovernment protesters killed in clashes.

Getty Images

Ukrainians lay flowers and pay their respects Sunday at a memorial in Kiev for antigovernment protesters killed in clashes.

Ukraine rushes to shift power after president's ouster 02/23/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 12:51am]

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