Ukraine's Tymoshenko freed from prison; Yanukovich in retreat

Ukraine's Tymoshenko freed from prison; Yanukovich in retreat
Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, freed from prison, addresses antigovernment protesters in Kiev's Independence Square. She appeared in a wheelchair because of a spinal condition that worsened while she was imprisoned. (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)

KIEV, Ukraine — The most ardent foe of Ukraine's embattled president was freed from prison Saturday and rushed to the capital, where she was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters chanting her name, some so overcome by emotion that they fainted.

Events in Kiev and around the country had the feel of a revolution nearing its culmination. Having retreated to his eastern stronghold, President Viktor Yanukovich fulminated in an Internet clip against "Nazis" and "bandits." He insisted he still was the country's leader and that he would not resign.

But it seemed that no one was listening anymore.

The parliament voted to remove him from office and set a new presidential election for May 25. His opponents took control of the Council of Ministers building and the president's administrative offices. Protesters also seized the presidential residence, and by midday the road there was clogged with cars full of people who wanted to see how the president had lived.


Key allies fled Ukraine. Interfax news agency reported that border guards prevented a chartered plane carrying Yanukovich from leaving the country because it did not have proper documentation. It did not say where he was headed.

In Kiev's Independence Square, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appeared before more than 30,000 supporters after being freed from prison by the parliament. She had been serving a seven-year term for abuse of power, a charge that supporters and Western governments considered political retribution.

The crowd chanted: "Yulia! Yulia! Yulia!"

The charismatic Tymoshenko heaped praise on antigovernment protesters and urged them to remain in the square until a new president is elected.

"Today we have an open road to the Ukraine you want," Tymoshenko said. "The policy of behind-the-scenes intrigues is over. By the blood you shed, by your heroism, by your patriotism you deserved the right to rule over your Ukraine."

Tymoshenko urged that "Yanukovich and his cronies" be caught and delivered to protesters in the square. The emotional pitch of her speech was so high that it was interrupted several times by calls for medical assistance in the dense crowd as some people, worn out by long days of violence-marked demonstrations, passed out.

Some found it hard to recognize the blond woman with a trademark braid wrapped around her head. The famous braid was in place, but her face was swollen and her small figure was pushed onto the square's stage in a wheelchair, a consequence of a spinal condition that worsened in jail.

Her words, however, retained their power.

"I want to apologize for all politicians and all officials who are unworthy of you," she said. "From this moment there won't be a Ukraine different from what you want. I will be your guarantor for it."

Vadim Karasyov, head of the Institute of Global Strategies think tank in Kiev, said her speech indicated she was already campaigning to replace Yanukovich. "I don't see who can challenge her for the presidency now.

"The crowd loves her again, she suits both the Kremlin and the West, she knows how to milk our oligarchs to make ordinary people happy, and she suffered greatly at the hands of Yanukovich," he said.

Close to the end of her speech somebody shouted: "A traitor in the crowd!" Tymoshenko's burly security guards immediately stood in front of her as dozens of young men in helmets with clubs began elbowing their way through the crowd in search of someone who was never found.

In the commotion, Tymoshenko was quietly rolled away from the stage.

More than 100 people have been killed across Ukraine in the worst political violence in its post-Soviet history. Protests began in November when Yanukovich rejected association with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow.

Ukraine is sharply divided between western regions that look toward the rest of Europe and eastern areas that are closer to Russia. Russian officials have accused the West of trying to exploit the unrest.

Events gained a dizzying pace in the last week. On Friday, facing outrage after snipers cut down protesters in the streets of Kiev and a collapse of support from security forces, Yanukovich signed a broad agreement with opposition leaders. It included an amnesty for protesters and said that a presidential election, originally set for next March, would be held before December.

The parliament fired the hard-line interior minister and 17 legislators quit the ruling party. But that was not enough for the protesters.

Vitali Klitschko, a popular opposition leader and former world heavyweight boxing champion thought to have presidential ambitions of his own, was not among a couple of dozen prominent opposition leaders standing behind Tymoshenko and listening to her speech with solemn faces.

Karasyov said Klitschko hurt himself politically by shaking hands with Yanukovich after signing the agreement Friday. "He most likely will have to forget about his immediate presidential ambitions," Karasyov said.

Tymoshenko was sent to prison because of a natural-gas deal she signed with Russia that her critics said put Ukraine at a severe disadvantage. Analysts said, however, that her ability to negotiate the deal shows she can do business with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

From his stronghold in Kharkiv, about 25 miles from the Russian border, Yanukovich begged international mediators to intervene. He said he fled to Kharkiv after protesters shot at his car.

"The opposition is trying to scare me all the time with ultimatums," Yanukovich said. "I am not going to resign. I am a legitimately elected president."

Yanukovich had been expected to attend a congress of his supporters and allies Saturday in Kharkiv but didn't appear. Governors, lawmakers and bureaucrats who were present vowed "to preserve the unity of Ukraine."

Meanwhile, in Kiev, the parliament appointed an acting police chief who immediately invited opposition activists to patrol the streets with regular police officers. Despite funeral processions for protesters killed in the violence, a festive feeling pervaded the capital. For the first time in a week, protesters took off flak jackets and helmets and took children to the main square. Shops also began to reopen.

Danil Nagorny, a 7-year-old boy carrying a toy machine gun and wearing his father's bright orange helmet, came with his parents to Independence Square to lay flowers. "Some heroes died and they need flowers now," he said.

Others were more taken with the rumor that Yanukovich had a golden toilet at his official residence in Mezhgorye. They were not allowed inside, but on the grounds they had pictures taken around a club and restaurant, a park, luxury cottages, an ostrich enclosure and a golf course.