Viktor F. Yanukovich
Simferopol (Ukraine), Feb. 27: Masked gunmen today seized government buildings in the capital of the Crimea region of Ukraine, barricaded themselves inside and raised the Russian flag, raising the spectre of a separatist rebellion that could tear the country apart.
Further inflaming an increasingly volatile situation, Viktor F. Yanukovich released a statement today saying that he remained the lawful President of Ukraine and appealed to Russia to protect “my personal safety”.
While his precise whereabouts remained a mystery, Russian news agencies reported subsequently that Yanukovich would hold a news conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, six days after he was driven from power by mass protests and fled from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Local police officers in Simferopol, the Crimean regional capital, sealed off access to the government buildings, including the regional Parliament, which were seized in mysterious overnight raids by people who appeared to be militant ethnic Russians.
Crimea has been a source of tension between Ukraine and Russia for decades: the territory was transferred to Ukraine by the Russian Federation when they were both components of the Soviet Union in 1954, and Ukraine retained it when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Russia still maintains important military bases there, including the home port of the Black Sea Fleet.
Oleksandr V. Turchynov, the speaker of Parliament and acting President of Ukraine, urged Russian military forces early today not to stray out of the designated Russian military zones.
“I am addressing the Russian Black Sea Fleet command with a demand: all military servicemen should stay within the boundaries of of the territories stipulated by agreement,” Turchynov said as he presided over the Parliament. “Any movement of military servicemen with weapons outside this territory will be viewed as military aggression.”
Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s acting interior minister, said that the new government was taking unspecified measures “to counter the extremists’ actions and prevent an escalation of an armed conflict in the centre of the city”. It was unclear, however, how much authority Avakov has over the police and other government agencies in Crimea, where many in the heavily ethnic Russian population view the ouster of Yanukovich as a fascist coup.
“Provocateurs are on the march,” Avakov said, making his announcement, as he has others, on his Facebook account. “It’s a time for cool heads, the healthy consolidation of forces, and careful action.”
In his statement, Yanukovich warned that the largely Russian regions in eastern and southern Ukraine, including Crimea, would “not accept the anarchy and outright lawlessness” that has gripped the country. “I continue to consider myself the lawful head of the Ukrainian government, elected on the basis of the free expression of the will of Ukrainian citizens,” he said in the statement, according to two news agencies, RIA Novosti and Itar-Tass. “I cannot be indifferent to the tragic events in my homeland.”
Whether he can cling to any part of his former power remains far from clear. Members of his own party have deserted him, and the Ukrainian Parliament impeached him and moved today to approve an interim government, with elections for a new President planned for May.
Yanukovich’s remarks were his first since Saturday, when he appeared in a video that apparently was recorded in his political base in eastern Ukraine. Even in his diminished and humiliated position, with journalists and ordinary people traipsing through his presidential palace and sorting through incriminating records, Yanukovich asserted his authority over the country’s armed forces.
“I, as the actual President, have not allowed the armed forces of Ukraine to interfere in the ongoing internal political events,” he said, contradicting reports that he had ordered the military to intervene in Kiev, only to have his order rebuffed.