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Ukrainians peek into Yanukovich's opulent home and look ahead

MEZHGORYE, Ukraine — The center of Kiev was relatively calm Sunday after the months of protests that reached their violent apex last week, leaving scores dead in the streets, driving Ukraine's president out of the capital and placing the opposition in tenuous control of this troubled nation.

But on the highways leading north of the city, it was a different matter.

The roadways were clogged with cars, drivers madly honking, edging their way forward and then parking anywhere they could, leaving people to continue on foot. They weren't in flight from the capital but on an unlikely pilgrimage. On this gray and overcast afternoon, they had come to see the opulent home President Viktor Yanukovich had left behind, even as many of them wrestled with the question of who would take his place.

PHOTOS: Ukraine president's abandoned residence

Their destination was a 330-acre country estate here in Mezhgorye, about 10 miles out of the capital. They were drawn by reports of luxury. They didn't see the rumored golden toilets. But they did find exotic trees and birds. Marble staircases and a steam bath as large as a house. A frigate that houses a dining room and bar overlooking the marvelous expanse of the Dnieper River. A golf course and tennis courts and swimming pool. Streams and lakes adorned with granite, limestone and classical sculptures styled after ancient Greek and Roman works.

Until Sunday, all that and much more had belonged to Yanukovich. He fled the capital on Friday after signing an agreement with opposition leaders in the wake of a deadly crackdown that had killed more than 100 people, most of them protesters. He said in a video statement Saturday that he remained in power and had just taken a trip to eastern Ukraine, the heart of his support, but by then parliament had voted to depose him.

On Sunday, parliament reportedly turned over presidential powers to its new speaker, Oleksander Turchinov. It also nationalized Yanukovich's country estate, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and allegedly built on property taken by Yanukovich from the state through the use of front companies.

"I didn't know this handsome, humble man I saw on television on a daily basis was a czar," said Alla Petrenko, a 59-year-old pensioner, as she stared Sunday through a French window of Yanukovich's three-story home at a gilded, winding staircase with marble steps inside. "Our country lives like a beggar, always with an outstretched hand, like myself on a pension of $136 a month, and all this time [Yanukovich] lived here like a padishah."

Petrenko then moved on to a more urgent issue, a dominant topic of conservation Sunday almost everywhere in the country: the May 25 presidential election called by parliament.

"I must not make a mistake this time," Petrenko said, though she refrained from saying whom she voted for in 2010 when Yanukovich narrowly defeated former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was later imprisoned by the government and won her freedom only Saturday. "Yulia made mistakes in the past, but she paid for it in full, having enough prison time on her hands to rethink her mistakes. I will vote for her. No more golden toilets for Ukraine."

Ivan Dovganyuk, a 26-year-old musician and photographer from the western town of Kolomyya, looked in amazement at the expansive golf course where hundreds of people were strolling, and he shook his head. He had less kind words to say for Tymoshenko, a hero to many in the opposition.

"Dozens of young people from my home western regions and the rest of Ukraine died last week to stop all this corruption, among other things," he said. "But I am afraid the fruits of their heroic sacrifice will once again be snatched by these old Soviet-school people like Tymoshenko, who is also guilty of the bloody crisis our country ended up in.

"We need to stop relying on leaders; we need to completely change the existing system," he said. "We need to put all in power under real control of the people, the young people like those who sacrificed themselves."

With Yanukovich's rule apparently ended and the violence of recent days over for now, Ukraine faces other challenges. One of them, said political scientist Vadim Karasyov, is what to do with several thousand young protesters, still wearing masks and holding clubs and shields, who are patrolling Kiev and outlying roads with traffic police. Many are conservatives who may not be content with opposition leaders such as Tymoshenko, Arseny Yatsenyuk and former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko.

"These young people have made a real revolution and they will not that easily allow their victory to be snatched by the seasoned political professionals like Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk and even Klitschko," said Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies, a Kiev-based think tank. "These right-wing, nationalist-leaning youths will not have a candidate in the presidential election, and to defuse their frustration parliament should call early parliamentary elections too to let these guys be represented and move away from the street into real politics."

Political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko agreed. "We need to find a way to somehow incorporate them in the system of power, the sooner the better," said Fesenko, head of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, a Kiev-based think tank. "Tymoshenko is already trying to win their hearts and use them against all of her would-be election opponents, but they don't trust her and will not follow her. For them, she is part of the old political establishment that must be completely dismantled."

But another issue in the coming presidential campaign, the lack of valid candidates representing the industrial east of the country, might aid Tymoshenko, Fesenko said.

"The sinking ruling party and the communists traditionally enjoying significant support in the east will hardly be represented in the coming election, given the complete change of the political climate in Kiev," he said. "So the only candidate who can try to win the east is Tymoshenko. And if she does, she will be our next president. "

At Yanukovich's former estate, dozens of people were peering through the windows of the frigate along the Dnieper. In the vast dining hall glittering with gold, they could see dozens of bottles of cognac and vodka on a sprawling redwood table and windowsills. Some bottles featured Yanukovich's portraits on their labels.

"I am not voting for anybody in this new election," said Oxana Kolyada, 35, a nursery school instructor from Kiev among the crowd. "I like Klitschko. He is a nice man and a good sportsman, but that is not enough. Our big problem now is that we don't have a leader we can trust."

sergei.loiko@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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