What You Need To Know About This Weekend’s Dramatic Events In Ukraine — And What Lies Ahead

CREDIT: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Flowers cover barricades in Kyiv's Independence Square, the epicenter of protests over the past three months.

After three months of protests turned exceptionally violent this week, supporters of Ukraine’s anti-government movement are now in power after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital city of Kyiv and parliament voted to hand over the president’s powers to parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov.

On Sunday, residents in cities from east to west took to the streets in droves — this time to mourn the victims.

Yanukovych’s whereabouts remain a mystery. In a video message released Saturday, recorded in an undisclosed location, Yanukovych compared the protests in Ukraine to the movement that brought the Nazis to power in the 1930s and refuted claims that he had stepped down, saying defiantly, “I am a legitimately elected president.” He then fled Kyiv, reportedly for eastern Ukraine. “Border guards said they stopped his plane in Donetsk trying to leave the country on Feb. 22, but have not said anything publicly today,” the Kyiv Post reported. “Member of parliament Vitali Klitschko said today that he doesn’t know where Yanukovych went, nor were his whereabouts disclosed in parliament today.”

On Friday, it appeared that a deal, brokered by representatives from the European Union, had been struck to rebalance presidential and parliamentary powers and to hold early elections this year. Instead, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said the president never signed the deal and called for a parliamentary resolution forcing Yanukovych to step down. On Saturday, the parliament voted to strip the president of his powers, “citing as grounds his abandoning office and the deaths of more than 80 protesters and police in the past chaotic week of violence,” Radio Free Europe reported.

With Yanukovych gone, his opulent presidential estate, Mezhyhirya, was opened to the public and Ukrainians swarmed the grounds on Saturday — the private zoo, golf course, luxury car collection and even a giant ship becoming the latest symbols of corruption in a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Journalists and opposition members are also sifting through “hundreds [of] pages of accounting files, receipts, and dossiers on Yanukovych’s political opponents floating in a river,” apparently dumped there before the estate was vacated.

Parliament also voted on Saturday to free Yanukovych’s arch-rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in jail since a 2011 trial that many believe was orchestrated to put her behind bars shortly after Yanukovych came to power. Tymoshenko, herself a polarizing figure, left prison and went straight to the epicenter of the protests, Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). Addressing a crowd of 20,000 people, she said, “This is your victory … You have removed this cancer from this country.”

What happens next in Ukraine is fraught with uncertainty. Yanukovych’s ouster and the removal of several government officials leaves a major power vacuum in the country, one that could be filled in several ways, as the New York Times observes: “perhaps an orderly new leadership headed by established opposition parties, perhaps a chaotic cacophony of voices driven by the passions of the street or, most ominously of all, the establishment of two or more rival power centers pushing the fractured nation into a Yugoslav-style disintegration.”

Parliament is expected to elect a new prime minister no later than February 24 and presidential elections have been set for May 25. While Tymoshenko reportedly said she is not interested in the Prime Minister position, she told the crowd on Maidan “I am coming back to work,” and her potential return to political office has been met with some concern, both inside Ukraine and globally. As Miriam Elder points out at BuzzFeed, the former Prime Minister was once considered Russia’s preferred candidate, with Russian President Valdimir Putin saying, “It’s comfortable for us to work with Tymoshenko’s government.”

With his focus off the just concluded Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, how Putin will react to the weekend’s events in Ukraine is another major unknown. Russia has a deep vested interest in Ukraine, both as a major consumer of Russian natural gas and conduit for its pipelines, home to its Black Sea Fleet, and a country that Russia has long-sought to bring back into its political orbit. Earlier this week, a Russian official told the Financial Times that the country was prepared to defend the ethnically Russian people of Crimea, the Ukrainian territory that also houses a Russian naval base, saying, “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war … They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.”

With Ukraine’s economy in dire straits, the country will need a great deal of outside help to stabilize. Yanukovych struck a deal with Russia in December for $15 billion in loans and natural gas discounts, but in light of the recent upheaval, Moscow said it will wait to see the outcome of the political crisis before providing any further payments (only $3 billion has been delivered thus far). On Sunday, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said Ukraine “should seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an imminent default, but would have to meet demands for difficult structural reforms,” the Associated Press reported. Both U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and IMF chief Christine Lagarde said they are prepared to help Ukraine rebuild its economy, “provided reforms are carried out,” according to Radio Free Europe.

The fate of those seen as responsible for the bloody assault on protesters also remains to be seen. Speaking to Christoper Miller of the Kyiv Post, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said Yanukovych is “fully responsible for the people who have died.” Klitschko also said political leaders “will compile a list of people responsible for giving these orders (to police troops and snipers to fire live ammunition at protesters), and we will decide then” what steps should be taken to hold them accountable.