Race to fill power vacuum in Ukraine

A KEY Ukrainian opposition figure yesterday began the task of bringing order to the chaos that has engulfed the nation, assuming presidential powers amid ongoing uncertainty on the whereabouts of ousted leader Viktor Yanukovich.

An anti-government protestor at the entrance of Independence square in Kiev. Picture: Getty

Oleksandr Turchynov, the parliamentary speaker, was named interim president and told members of parliament they have until tomorrow to form a new unity government.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from jail on Saturday, ruled out becoming prime minister again.

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The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled to work out who is in charge of the country and its ailing economy, with concern that some regions such as the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea might try to break away.

An anti-government protestor at the entrance of Independence square in Kiev. Picture: Getty

The Kiev protest camp at the centre of the anti-Yanukovich movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators, who set up new tents.

Amid the fast-moving political crisis which has claimed the lives of scores of protesters, speculation continued to surround the role of Ms Tymoshenko.

But in a statement issued via her party, she asked her supporters not to nominate her as a candidate for prime minister.

She said: “It was a surprise for me when I heard I was being proposed for the post of prime minister. No-one has agreed or discussed this with me. Thank you for your respect but I would like you not to consider my nomination for the post of the head of government.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Ms Tymoshenko yesterday and urged her to work for unity. Mrs Merkel also had a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with both agreeing that the country’s “territorial integrity must be safeguarded”. A spokesperson for Mrs Merkel said: “They underscored their joint interest in a stable Ukraine – both in economic and political terms,” adding that the two leaders had agreed to keep in close contact in the days ahead.

While an interim prime minister is yet to be appointed, MPs meeting in an emergency session of parliament began dismantling Mr Yanukovich’s government machine.

Foreign minister Leonid Kozhara and education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk were dismissed, while arrest warrants were issued for former incomes minister Oleksandr Klimenko and prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka. Mr Yanukovich’s private estate on the outskirts of Kiev was handed to the state.

Mr Turchynov, a close associate of Ms Tymoshenko, has said that forming a unity government is a “priority task”.

One of the opposition leaders, former world champion boxer, Vitaly Klitschko, also stressed the need for urgency, stating: “We don’t have much time.”

With presidential elections scheduled for 25 May, Mr Klitschko suggested he could be in the running. He said: “I want to make Ukraine a modern European country. If I can do that through the president’s position, I will do my best.”

The legitimacy of the parliament’s flurry of decisions in recent days is under question. The votes are based on a decision on Friday to return to a ten-year-old constitution that grants parliament greater powers. Mr Yanukovich has not signed that decision into law, and said on Saturday that the parliament is now acting illegally. However, legal experts said that de facto the parliament is now in charge.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine today, where she is expected to discuss measures to shore up the ailing economy.

Mr Yanukovich’s precise whereabouts were not known yesterday. He is believed to be in the east, the mainly Russian-speaking half of the country and his traditional power base. CCTV has emerged showing items being removed from the presidential compound on Friday and a figure getting on to a helicopter before flying away.

Reports have suggested he was stopped by border police while attempting to fly to Russia aboard a private plane from Donetsk on Saturday evening.

In Kiev’s Independence Square, thousands of opposition supporters remained yesterday, although there were no signs of the violent clashes that have claimed the lives of 88 people since 18 February, according to the health ministry. One man, Artyom Zhilyansky, a 45-year-old engineer, said: “We need to catch and punish those with blood on their hands.”

He and other protesters called for law enforcement chiefs to be held accountable and Mr Yanukovich put on trial.