Ukrainian lawmakers vote to oust president, free rival

Viktor Yanukovych called his ouster a coup by “bandits.”
Viktor Yanukovych called his ouster a coup by “bandits.”
Published Feb. 23, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — 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.

Parliament plans to quickly name a prime minister and Cabinet to act as a caretaker government before elections scheduled for May. Still unknown is whether a defiant Yanukovych and a bitterly divided Ukraine will accept Parliament's decrees. Leaders of the ousted government, especially those from Ukraine's east and south, said they would oppose the new measures.

Just hours after Parliament voted to remove the president, his archrival 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 at least 82 Ukrainians killed in street fighting and by riot police last week.

The opposition leader, who still has her trademark blond braids, 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 two-term prime minister, was sentenced to seven years in prison in a 2011 trial charging her with abuse of power and embezzlement over her role in a deal to buy natural gas from Russia. Her supporters and many Western countries said the trial and conviction were politically motivated.

In an emergency session, Parliament voted 380-0 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 Parliament, now dominated by opposition politicians, declared that early presidential elections would be held May 25.

Thousands filled Independence Square in the capital, which is still ringed by barricades erected by protesters and "self-defense" militias. The militia members kept order and continued to march in military columns, brandishing homemade metal shields, with wooden clubs and axes over 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 would run in the May contest.

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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."

The Associated Press reported that he spoke on TV in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, the heartland of his base of support. He truculently likened his opponents to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and accused them of a putsch. He called the opposition politicians in Parliament "bandits," their actions "illegal," and described the protesters as "hooligans."

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

But the White House released a statement that praised the "constructive work" done by 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.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the opposition leaders in Ukraine were "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 Interfax news agency.