KIEV, Ukraine – A top opposition figure assumed presidential powers Sunday, plunging Ukraine into new uncertainty after a deadly political standoff – and boosting long-jailed Yulia Tymoshenko’s chances of a return to power.
The whereabouts and legitimacy of President Viktor Yanukovych are unclear after he left the capital for his support base in eastern Ukraine. Allies are deserting him one by one, even as a presidential aide told the Associated Press on Sunday that he’s hanging on to his presidential duties.
The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled to work out who is in charge of the country and its ailing economy. Fears percolated that some regions such as the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea might try to break away. Three months of political crisis have left scores of people dead in a country of strategic importance to the United States, Europe and Russia.
Ukraine is deeply divided between eastern regions that are largely pro-Russian and western areas that widely detest Yanukovych and long for closer ties with the European Union.
Yanukovych set off a wave of protests by shelving an agreement with the EU in November, and the movement quickly expanded its grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.
The parliament speaker who assumed presidential powers, Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchinov, said in a televised address that top priorities include saving the economy and “returning to the path of European integration,” according to Russian news agencies.
He is quoted as urging calm and a return to order, and “a firm stance against any appearance of separatism and threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.”
The Kiev protest camp at the center of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with dedicated demonstrators Sunday, setting up new tents after two days that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in the political crisis.
Tymoshenko, the controversial heroine of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, increasingly appears to have the upper hand in the political battle, winning the backing Sunday of a leading Russian lawmaker and congratulations from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. senators on her release.
Tymoshenko’s name circulated Sunday as a possibility for acting prime minister pending May 25 presidential elections, but she issued a statement asking her supporters not to nominate her.
She may want to focus her energies instead on campaigning for president and building up strength after her imprisonment.
A spokeswoman for Tymoshenko, Marina Soroka, said it’s too early to talk about a presidential run. Tymoshenko met with several foreign diplomats Sunday, then headed to visit her mother and will return to work after that.
Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed during a telephone conversation Friday that a political settlement in Kiev should ensure the country’s unity and personal freedoms.
But Rice also said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that it would be a “grave mistake” for Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
European diplomats helped negotiate a short-lived peace deal last week and the chief EU diplomat is coming to Kiev today.
Thousands of Ukrainians flocked to the Kiev protest camp known as the Maidan to pay their last respects to those killed, bearing flowers and lighting candles while Cossacks beat drums.
Nadezhda Kovalchuk, a 58-year-old food worker on the square, said they died “so that we would be free, for our freedom, so that we, our children and grandchildren would live well.”