Harriet Salem and Graham Stack in Kyiv -
In a stunning historical reversal of fortunes, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko left her prison cell in Kharkiv on February 22 and flew to Kyiv to address jubilant protestors on the Maidan. On the same day, her longstanding foe, President Viktor Yanukovych, fled the capital city for Kharkiv, effectively sealing his loss of power, and is now facing impeachment.
Events continued to move at lightening speed in Ukraine on February 22 as it became clear in the morning that the beleaguered president had quit the capital. By afternoon, his nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko, serving a seven-year jail sentence in Kharkiv widely regarded as politically motivated, had left her jail cell and flown to the capital, after opposition forces had pushed through legislation in parliament effectively freeing her.Â
With Tymoshenko addressing adoring crowds in Kyiv, while Yanukovych skulked in Kharkiv, effectively deposed, this reversal of fortunes is so sudden that it would have seemed from the realm of fantasy just 24 hours previous, when the country was dealing with the aftermath of security forces shooting dead scores of protestors.
As news broke of President Yanukovych's flight from Kyiv in the course of the morning, half the city flocked to his usually gated but now abandoned private residence on the outskirts of Kyiv, the Mezhyhirya, to gawp at the Turkish saunas, vintage car collection, and pet peacocks. "I saw more wealth here today than most men earn in a lifetime - it is disgusting how he lives as a king whilst killing his people," said Sergei, a barricade guard at the Euromaidan protests in central Kyiv after returning from viewing Yanukovych's palatial home.
Yanukovych is not the only one to have quit town. In the last few days Kyiv has haemorrhaged high-ranking officials from Yanukovych's Party of Regions. More than 60 private jets are thought to have departed from the capital's Zhuliany airport in the last few days, according to media reports, presumably loaded with not only with their politician owners but also with ill-gotten gains. On February 22, the tax minister, Oleksandr Klimenko, and prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka, both key cronies and alleged business partners of Yanukovych, were reportedly caught in their native Donetsk region trying to cross the border into Russia. Powerful oligarch Rinat Akhmetov has also allegedly high-tailed it to London. Pro-Yanukovych mayor of Kharkiv, Hennady Kernes, together with the governor of Kharkiv region, Mykhailo Dovkin, have also both left the country, according to newswires.
In the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, opposition politicians have continued to take advantage of the empty seats vacated by their Party of the Regions opponents. On February 21 parliament already pushed through a return to the constitution of 2004 and decriminalised the actions for which former prime minister Tymoshenko was convicted in 2011. In a follow-up on February 22, the parliament voted to impeach the president and hold early presidential elections, scheduled for May 25.
Technically in Ukraine even once passed by parliament, laws still have to be signed off by the president. But in a spectacular show of resistance the opposition have sidestepped the small print, today releasing Yanukovych's longstanding political rival Yulia Tymoshenko from over two years of detention.
The atmosphere on Independence Square, known as the Maidan, was electric in the evening of February 22, as the crowd of around 75,000 chanted Tymoshenko's name. Tymoshenko, looked haggard and remained in a wheelchair due to a back condition resulting from her prison confinement. Her daughter Zhenya stood beside her and opposition leaders were grouped around them.
Despite her physical appearances, Tymoshenko's speech showed she was back on a charm offensive - laden with emotionality, grief over the loss of life and promises for the future. "When I arrived in Kyiv [today] I did not recognize it - with scorched cars and barricades. But you have given us a free country as a gift."
"People who were on Maidan and fell here are our heroes. Heroes never die," she further intoned.
Hair braided in her trademark style, Tymoshenko apologized for the failings of opposition politicians in the past - a reference to her crippling feud as prime minister with then president Viktor Yushchenko, in the wake of the Orange Revolution of 2004 that first brought them to power. And whilst there was no overt mention of political ambitions, she declared to applause, "I am back to work" - a hint at her election campaign slogan of 2010, when she ran unsuccessfully against Yanukovych: "She is working".
"I am ecstatic about her," said Tatiana Savosina, 67 years old from Kyiv. Tatiana was carrying a large poster reading "Yulia - Warrior of the light."
Opposition MPs appeared jubilant over the day's endeavours. Scenes from the parliament showed deputies embracing and clapping as each landslide legislative victory was shown on the overhead screens. Outside, crowds gathered, heckling the few remaining Party of the Regions and Communist deputies with catcalls of "murderers" and "blood suckers" as they slunk from parliament.
Popping into the nearby Hotel Kyiv, the Rada's deputy chairman and a leader of the Orange Revolution, Mykola Tomenko, smiled as he told bne: "Today is a victory. Six months ago I could not believe this would happen, but today I believe."
However, there is still a long way to go. "The next few days will be very important in persuading people that the revolution is over and that we now need to put our efforts into developing Ukraine, our country. For many people the revolution has become a fulltime occupation," Tomenko said.
But for several of those who have camped out on the square for the past three months since Yanukovych failed to sign an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the EU in late November, risking life and limb defending it from repeated police attacks, the job is not yet done. Sat near the main stage atop a stack of sandbags, Cossack Mykhailo Gavryliuk said it is not yet a victory, just the beginning of a victory. "For a victory we need a leader who loves Ukraine more than himself, today we are still counting our dead," he said.
The candlelit memorials springing up across the Maidan, and the coffins still lined up in front of the main stage, are a chilling reminder of the 100-plus who lost their lives here, when government forces open fired on protestors, killing over 75.
But worryingly not all are convinced that a suitable candidate to replace Yanukovych exists. "I don't trust any of the three opposition leaders," said 22-year-old Andriy, a student and hotel worker. "And Tymoshenko is corrupt, but then all Ukrainian politicians are. You can change the faces but in the end the system and the problems remain the same".
The potent cocktail of political frustration, Molotov-fuelled violence and revolution has certainly served to radicalise some. "The best thing about this protests has been the emergence of the far right," said Andriy, who is a supporter of Praviy Sektor and was involved in the frontline clashes between demonstrators and police on Hrushevkogo street.
Whilst Tymoshenko headed from jail in Kharkiv to address the Maidan's thousands in the capital, Yanukoyvch seemed to have abandoned the capital for an unknown location in Kharkiv. Factually deposed, the former president made only a brief appearance - in an interview given to a little-known local TV channel. Â
Appearing out of touch and rambling, Yanukovych refused to concede defeat, denouncing the protests in Kyiv as "vandalism, banditry, and a coup d'etat," and comparing the situation to a repeat of the 1930s when the Nazis came to power in Germany.
Yanukovych said he would now tour the east and south of the country - his traditional strongholds - to sound the views of the population there, a thinly veiled, but likely empty, threat to stoke separatist tensions between east and west.
The announcement in the major eastern city Dnepropetrovsk by the police force that they were "with the people" and the apparent departure of the pro-Yankovych Kharkiv authorities, suggest that Yanukovych's power may be crumbling even his traditional heartland.
But elsewhere in Ukraine, the divide between east and west appears to be deepening. In Kerch, in the pro-Russian Crimea, a small Euromaidan solidarity demonstration on February 22 ended in more dramatic violence, as police had to defend demonstrators against attack by a large crowd. Some of the pro-Maidan demonstrators were beaten and kicked in the head.
And in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, units of Berkut - the riot police unit held responsible for much of the violence against Euromaidan demonstrators in Kyiv - were given a heroes' welcome on their return home from deployment in the capital.
The scenes were a jarring contrast to the funeral liturgies being sung in Kyiv for the Euromaidan's heroes, and may bode ill for chances of reconciliation in this troubled country.
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