Ukraine’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was freed from prison today and went straight to Kiev’s Independence Square to rally her divided nation. President Viktor Yanukovich has left the capital, while many of his closest associates are reported to have fled the country. “A dictatorship has fallen,” Tymoshenko told the crowd, but she insisted that the fight has just begun.
To all intents and purposes, right now Ukraine has no president, but the parliament named Olexandr Turchinov, known as Tymoshenko’s right-hand man, to be its speaker. He is now the de facto leader of Ukraine—at least until Tymoshenko appears in public. A newly appointed interior minister also is from her party. Leading military and police units have begun declaring their loyalty to the new regime.
Former prime minister Tymoshenko, who wears her blonde hair in a trademark crown-like braid, had been serving a seven year sentence on corruption charges that many analysts believed were trumped up. Recently she had been confined in a hospital ward about three hours away from the Ukrainian capital. Tymoshenko has suffered from recurrent medical problems and appeared in Kiev in a wheelchair.
For months power in the country has been contested by the Euro Maidan movement and other protestors intent on taking the Ukraine closer to Europe, while Yanukovich sought to tie Ukraine ever more closely to Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.
Over the last three days the simmering confrontation suddenly erupted. Scores of protestors and police were killed on Thursday, even as three European foreign ministers and a representative from Moscow tried to strike a deal with Yanukovich to end the violence. After a marathon negotiating session, many of the protestors’ demands were met on Friday morning: early elections were announced, and a return to an earlier, more liberal constitution. The police pulled out of Independence Square. But Yanukovich still tried to hang on to power.
Then, earlier today, 300 members of parliament declared that the president no longer held office because he had exceeded his authority. Protestors occupied the presidential palace without resistance. Yanukovich had fled.
The now non-president is reported to have gone to the southeast of the country, which is Russian speaking and a traditional stronghold of support. But it appears that Putin, who once gave him strong backing, is now pulling away from him.
Indeed, nobody seems to want to be associated with the infamously corrupt Yanukovich in this drama that often feels surreal. At his residence, Yanukovich abandoned a menagerie of exotic animals, and amid all the upheaval, calls have gone out for people to rescue the beasts. Almost no one is talking about rescuing their owner.
The one thing that now seems to be clear is that we’re going to see a new Ukraine. As I look around Independence Square, a place where the word “apocalypse” has become a journalistic cliché, what strikes me now is the sense of order and of hope.
“We police ourselves,” says Nick Gorokhov, a spokesman for the Euro Maidan movement. “Ordinary people unite to make a civil guard to protect the city.”
The president is gone. The people are still here.