Ukrainian leadership vote called for European election day

  

Ukraine's interim leadership pledged to put the country back on course for EU integration now that Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted and new elections are called for 25 May, the same day as EU citizens will vote in the European elections. Meanwhile the United States warned Russia against sending in military forces.

As rival neighbours east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kyiv must not lead to the country breaking apart, acting President Oleksandr Turchinov said late on Sunday (23 February) that Ukraine's new leaders wanted relations with Russia on a "new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine's European choice".

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine today (24 February), where she is expected to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy.

Russia said late on Sunday that it had recalled its ambassador to Ukraine for consultations on the "deteriorating situation" in Kyiv.

A day after Yanukovich fled to the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, following dozens of deaths during street protests aimed at toppling him, parliament named its new speaker, Turchinov, as interim head of state (see background).

An ally of the ousted leader's jailed rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from jail on Saturday, he aims to swear in a government that can provide authority until a presidential election on 25 May, the same day EU citizens will vote in European elections.

With battle-hardened, pro-Western protesters in control of central Kyiv and determined to hold their leaders to account, lawmakers rushed through decisions to cement their power, display their rejection of rampant corruption and bring to account officials who ordered police to fire on Independence Square.

But whoever takes charge as interim prime minister faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis.

Scuffles in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new order in Kyiv and those anxious to stay close to Moscow revived fears of separatism that a week earlier were focused on the west, where Ukrainian nationalists had disowned Yanukovich and proclaimed self-rule.

President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, was asked on U.S. television about the possibility of Russia sending troops to Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin had hoped Yanukovich would keep closely allied to Moscow.

"That would be a grave mistake," Rice said. "It's not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split. It's in nobody's interest to see violence return and the situation escalate."

Yanukovich's flight into hiding left Putin's Ukraine policy in tatters, on a day he had hoped eyes would be on the grand finale to the Sochi Olympics. The Kremlin leader spoke on Sunday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose foreign minister had brokered a short-lived truce in Kyiv on Friday.

They agreed Ukraine's "territorial integrity" must be maintained, Merkel's spokesman said in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was asked if Russia might "send in the tanks" to defend its interests among ethnic Russians in the east and on the Crimea peninsula, where Moscow bases its Black Sea Fleet. "It would really not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing," he told the BBC.

Earlier this month, a Kremlin aide had warned that Moscow could intervene.

It is unlikely the United States and its allies in NATO would risk an outright military confrontation with Russia, but such echoes of the Cold War underline the high stakes in Ukraine, whose 46 million people and sprawling territory are caught in a geopolitical tug of war.

Financial aid offers

EU officials offered financial aid to a new government and to revive a trade deal that Yanukovich spurned under Russian pressure in November, sparking the protests that drove him from office after 82 deaths last week, many from police sniper fire.

In addition to any economic assistance the EU might offer, the United States has also promised help. Budgets are tight on both sides of the Atlantic, and international creditors may be wary of Yanukovich's opponents, whose previous spell in government was no economic success.

But a desire to avoid instability and back what looks to Western voters like a democratic movement menaced by Russian diktat may loosen purse strings, at least to tide Ukraine over until elections.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew encouraged Ukraine to begin discussions with the International Monetary Fund on an assistance package as soon as possible once a transitional government is in place in Kyiv.

Lew spoke with Arseny Yatsenyuk, a member of Ukraine's interim leadership, while returning to Washington from the G20 meeting in Sydney, where there was broad support for an IMF-based package, according to a Treasury official

In Russia, where Putin had wanted Ukraine as a key part in a union of ex-Soviet states, the finance minister said the next tranche of a $15 billion (11 billion) loan package agreed to in December would not be paid, at least before a new government is formed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to his office, told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry the opposition had "seized power" by force by ignoring an EU-brokered truce that would have left Yanukovich in office for the time being.

But even lawmakers from Yanukovich's own party voted for his removal on Saturday and blamed him and his entourage for the crisis. Business "oligarchs" also distanced themselves from a man long seen as their representative in the presidency.

In a mark of passions dividing Ukrainians along a historic fault line between Russian and Ukrainian cultures, local television in Kerch, in eastern Crimea, showed a crowd hauling down the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in front of the town hall and hoisting the white, blue and red Russian tricolour.

Parliament acts

In a hectic round of voting in parliament, lawmakers rushed in some crowd-pleasing measures against the old administration, conscious that those still occupying Independence Square - or the Maidan - remained deeply suspicious of the political class.

They stripped Yanukovich of his abandoned country home near Kyiv, complete with ostrich farm and hot tubs, its brash opulence fuelling demands that he be held to account for stealing taxpayer billions.

Turchinov said a government should be in place by Tuesday.

His ally, Tymoshenko, defeated by Yanukovich in a 2010 presidential election and later jailed for corruption, ruled herself out as interim premier. Freed from a prison hospital on Saturday after more than two years in jail, she may want time to recover and build support before running for the presidency.

As prime minister following the largely peaceful Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005, which overturned the first presidential victory by Yanukovich, Tymoshenko disappointed many in Ukraine who had hoped for an end to the corruption and failed economic policies that marked the aftermath of Soviet communism.

"In these days the most important thing is to form a functioning government," said Vitaly Klitschko, a former world boxing champion and possible presidential contender.

On Independence Square, men were still wandering around with clubs and wearing home-made body armour, helmets and in some cases ski masks and camouflage fatigues.

"We'll stay here to the very end," said Bohan Zakharchenko, 23, from Cherkasy, south of Kyiv. "We will be here till there's a new president." 

Positions: 

The Russian foreign ministry said yesterday (23 february) it had recalled to Moscow its ambassador in Ukraine for consultations on the "deteriorating situation" in Kiev, a day after the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich.

"Due to the deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the need for a comprehensive analysis of the situation, the decision was made to recall the Russian ambassador to Ukraine for consultations in Moscow," the ministry said in a statement.

U.S. officials insisted on Sunday that Ukraine should remain unified and cautioned that any military intervention by Russia would be a mistake.

In an appearance on the NBC TV program "Meet the Press," National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked about a scenario in which Russia would send troops to restore a government more friendly to Moscow, or for the country to be carved up.

"That would be a grave mistake. It is not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see the country split. It's in nobody's interest to see violence return and the situation escalate," Rice said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by telephone on Sunday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, expressing support for the Ukrainian parliament's latest moves. Kerry has also been in touch with some of Ukraine's opposition leaders.

The State Department said on Saturday it would send its No. 2 official, Bill Burns, to Kiev this week.

Britain stands ready to provide support to Ukraine through schemes set up by the IMF and European Union, British finance minister George Osborne said today (24 February).

"It's very, very early days, early hours, but the people of Ukraine seem to have demonstrated their wish to take their country into the future, to have stronger links with Europe, and I don't think we should be repelling that, we should be embracing that," he said speaking to journalists in Singapore.

"We should be there ready to provide financial assistance through organisations like the IMF, and of course alot of this will take the form of loans and the like, but there will be good investments in the economy of Ukraine".

Timeline: 
  • 25 Feb.: A new government expected to be sworn;
  • 25 May.: Early presidential election to be held.
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Comments

Ioakeim's picture

How many people had to die in order to allow some people to sit down and discuss civilly.

David Bennett's picture

Congratulations are in order for the European Union who successfully see the downfall of another sovereign power.

There's no doubt that Yanukovich's shelf life was almost done but now we'll see what colour of democracy the EU will be happy to accept when the people of the Ukraine hold new elections in an attempt to get it right

This can only end very badly

Vincente's picture

USA in Ukrainian national affairs is like Poland intervening in Paraguay. Who cares! They have no legitimacy!

Rice, go back to eating your freedom fries.