Ukraine's Ex-PM Receives Hero's Welcome

Ukrainians gave newly-freed opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko a hero's welcome as she addressed protesters in Kiev Saturday, where she urged them to continue their demonstrations.

As part of a deal to end weeks of violence, Tymoshenko was freed from a prison hospital where she had been serving time for abuse of power -- a charge her supporters say was political revenge by President Viktor Yanukovych.

Speaking from a wheelchair due to severe back pain, Tymoshenko called protesters heroes and the best of Ukraine before breaking down in tears. A long-time Yanukovych adversary, Tymoshenko said that a "dictatorship has fallen" as she honored the protesters who lost their lives.

Earlier Saturday, Ukraine's parliament voted to dismiss President Yanukovych and set early elections for May 25. Parliament also elected a new speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, a longtime Tymoshenko ally. Former speaker and government supporter Volodymyr Rybak submitted his resignation, citing ill health.

In an interview Saturday with a Ukrainian television station, Yanukovych said he intends to remain in office. He called the violent uprising against him an example of a "coup," and compared it to the Nazis' rise to power in Germany in the 1930s.

The president, who is in Kharkiv near the Russian border, also said all decisions made by Ukraine's parliament Saturday were illegal.

Yanukovych, however, has been left almost powerless. His cabinet promised to back a new government, the police said it supported the opposition, and the army said it would not get involved.

According to reports by Reuters, presidential loyalists in predominantly Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine are questioning the parliamentary actions, and the reports indicate calls have been issued to assume control of pro-Yanukovich territories.

"The move appeared to increase the possibility of a split in the sprawling former Soviet republic of 46 million, despite denials by the leaders that this was their intention," the Reuters story said.

The United States welcomed today's developments and urged the quick formation of a unity government. In a statement, the White House said the developments could move Ukraine closer to a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change and early elections.

"We welcome former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's release from a prison hospital today, and we wish her a speedy recovery as she seeks the appropriate medical treatment that she has long needed and sought," the statement said.

Newly freed Ukrainian opposition icon, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko delivers a speech in Kievs Independance square on Feb. 22, 2014. /AFP Newly freed Ukrainian opposition icon, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko delivers a speech in Kiev's Independance square on Feb. 22, 2014. /AFP

◆ Day of Action, Mourning

Ukrainian protesters also took control of President Yanukovych's offices in Kiev on Saturday, while others let themselves onto the grounds of the president's lavish but secret estate outside the capital, which includes a private zoo, and toured his house. Some say they are stunned that one person could have so much while others in Ukraine have nothing.

Meanwhile, thousands massed in Independence Square, where opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko urged Yanukovych to resign so elections can be held no later than May.

The protest camp on Kyiv's main square also hosted funerals and memorial services to mourn protesters cut down by police attacks and snipers.

There were prayers and tributes, and tears from people who probably never knew the victims. People stopped at makeshift shrines to pay their respects.

"I am commemorating those who died for our freedom, for people who just want to live a better life," said Olga, a Kiev resident who gave only her first name.

Ukrainian entrepreneur and researcher Valerii Pekar called it a political revolution, but also much more.

"This is a revolution in mentality," he said. "This is a revolution of values, new values against old values. ... It's values of modern society against values of old paternalistic Soviet-style society."

◆ Friday Agreement

Split between those in the east who favor ties with Russia and those in the west who lean toward the European Union, Ukraine erupted in protest when Yanukovych in November backed out of a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties to Moscow. The protests began peacefully but descended into violence earlier this month. Nearly 100 people have since been killed, including some protesters who were shot in the head by police snipers.

In spite of Friday's political deal for new elections and other concessions by Yanukovych, demonstrators objected to the agreement, which aimed to end the country's political crisis. The deal was signed by both the president and the opposition leadership.

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told officials from France, Poland and Germany the opposition was failing to fulfill Friday's agreement. Foreign ministers from those three countries helped broker the deal.

The deal returns Ukraine to its 2004 constitution, limiting presidential powers, and also sets up a coalition government and early elections.

Tymoshenko was one of the leaders of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, when the Supreme Court threw out the results of an apparently flawed presidential election won by Yanukovych and ordered a new vote.

She became prime minister under the new president, Viktor Yushchenko. After Yanukovych defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential election, she was put on trial for alleged abuse of power over a natural gas deal with Russia and sentenced to prison.

VOA News / Feb. 24, 2014 08:23 KST