A top Ukrainian opposition figure assumed presidential powers Sunday, plunging Ukraine into new uncertainty after a deadly political standoff _ and boosting long-jailed Yulia Tymoshenko’s chances at 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. He maintains that parliament’s decisions in recent days are illegal, and a top presidential aide told The Associated Press on Sunday that he will continue to fulfill his presidential duties.
The newly emboldened parliament, now dominated by the opposition, struggled Sunday to work out who is in charge of the country. Fears percolated that some regions might try to break away, after three months of political crisis that has left scores of people dead in a country of strategic importance to the United States, European nations 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’s shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, but they quickly expanded their grievances to corruption, human rights abuses and calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.
The Kiev protest camp at the center of the anti-Yanukovych movement filled with more and more dedicated demonstrators Sunday, setting up new tents after two days that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in Ukraine’s political crisis.
Tymoshenko, the blond-braided 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.
Russia’s position will be important for the future of this country, since Moscow has been providing financing to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat, and the two countries have deep but complicated ties.
Russia’s finance minister on Sunday urged Ukraine to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an imminent default. Russia in December offered Ukraine a $15 billion bailout, but so far has provided only $3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing political crisis.
Russian legislator Leonid Slutsky said Sunday that naming Tymoshenko prime minister “would be useful for stabilizing” the tensions in Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies.
Tensions mounted in Crimea, where pro-Russian politicians are organizing rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kiev. Russia maintains a big naval base in Crimea that has tangled relations between the countries for two decades.
The political crisis in this nation of 46 million has changed with blinding speed repeatedly in the past week. First there were signs that tensions were easing, followed by horrifying violence and then a deal signed under pressure from continued…