Protesters and journalists walk through the residence of Yanukovych outside Kiev on Saturday. (Reuters)
Kiev, Feb. 23: An eerie calm and a light mist shrouded President Viktor F. Yanukovych’s sprawling residential compound just outside the capital on Saturday morning as street fighters from the centre of Kiev made their way inside, gingerly passing a wrought-iron gate and cautioning one another about booby traps and snipers.
They found none of either but discovered instead a world surely just as surreal as the charred wasteland of barricades and debris on the occupied central plaza that has been their home for months. It was a vista of bizarre and whimsical attractions on a grand scale, a panorama of waste and inexplicable taste.
They saw about a half-dozen large residences of various styles, a private zoo with rare breeds of goats, a coop for pheasants from Asia, a golf course, a garage filled with classic cars and a private restaurant in the form of a pirate ship, with the name “Galleon” on the stern.
One man in the 31st Lviv Hundred, the small band of anti-government militants that took control of the compound, hung a Ukrainian flag on a lamppost. A few dozen others walked about, seemingly dazed by what was happening.
Whether it was the toppling of Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or of Col Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, the breaching of the presidential palace gates is a milestone of a revolution. But Kiev on Saturday was unusual in one sense.
There was no sacking. The opposition unit that took control of the President’s complex kept it intact, at least for now. On Saturday, the President fled, and the presidential guard melted away.
But members of the Lviv-based “hundred”, who had repeatedly confronted Yanukovych’s security forces on the streets, posted guards around his residential compound and prevented looting.
The reason, they said, was to preserve evidence of the ousted leader’s lavish lifestyle for his prosecution.
“We hoped for this but didn’t expect it,” said Roman Dakus, who had been in Kiev at Independence Square off and on for three months.
“Before, people thought, ‘Nothing really depends on me’. They preferred to say that and to think like that. But after this situation, they think differently. They believe in their struggle when they are all together,” Dakus added.
Within a short time, a crowd gathered outside the gates. “What a nightmare,” one man said in disgust.
The complex was once a modest government site that Yanukovych turned into a private residence and then expanded, saying acquaintances had built or paid for many amenities.
The street fighters found a heap of ash from burned documents inside, and used a raft to fish others from where they had been thrown into the river, laying them out carefully to dry.
The complex extended well over a mile along the river and was immaculately landscaped with hedges, lawns and birch trees, and a golf course.
“It’s beautiful here,” said Svetlana Gorbenkova, a realtor, as she walked about. “It’s so peaceful. But why all this for just one person? This was all stolen from us. It’s obvious now how much he stole. Why didn’t he give anything to the people? When he was running for President, one of his slogans was, ‘I will listen to every one of you’. But he didn’t listen to any of us.”
Ukraine’s Parliament, exercising power since mass protests put the President to flight, named its new speaker as acting head of state to replace Yanukovych and worked to form a new government.
The European Union and Russia, vying for influence over the huge former Soviet republic on their borders, considered their next moves. EU officials said they were ready to help Ukraine, while Russia, its strategy of funding Yanukovych in tatters, said it would keep cash on hold until it sees who is in charge.
Opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was released from detention but she said she did not want to be Prime Minister. Her comments suggested she may be eyeing a run to be head of state.