MOSCOW -- Ukraine's fugitive former president, Viktor Yanukovich, announced Thursday that he has turned to Russia for protection out of concern for his personal security and declared in a statement carried by Kremlin-influenced media that he remains the legitimate leader of Ukraine.
Russia's RIA Novosti news agency quoted “anonymous government sources” as saying Yanukovich’s appeal for asylum had been granted by Moscow and that he was “currently on Russian territory.”
Yanukovich said in the statement that he was forced to flee his homeland because of dangers posed by "extremists" who have taken power in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Interfax, Itar-Tass and RIA Novosti reported.
“Everything that is happening now in the Verkhovna Rada [parliament] of Ukraine is illegitimate," Yanukovich said of the interim Ukrainian government voted in by opposition lawmakers on Thursday, RIA Novosti reported. "All decisions will quickly show their ineffectiveness and will not be fulfilled.”
There was some speculation that Yanukovich might be in Sevastopol, the Russian naval base that has a "special status" within Ukraine as leased Russian territory. The Associated Press, however, quoted an unnamed source as saying he was staying at a Kremlin sanatorium outside Moscow.
[Updated, 8:15 a.m. PST Feb. 27: Russia Today television later reported that Yanukovich would give a news conference on Friday in the south-central Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.]
Yanukovich fled Kiev on Friday after signing a European Union-brokered peace agreement to end three days of deadly violence and a 3-month-old rebellion against him in exchange for early elections and constitutional changes to reduce the powers of the Ukrainian presidency.
A warrant for his arrest was issued Monday, accusing him of ordering the deadly crackdown on demonstrators in Kiev's Independence Square, where at least 82 protesters and police officers died. Kiev's new leaders want Yanukovich tried, preferably at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, for crimes against humanity.
The clashes were triggered in late November when Yanukovich refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union that would have boosted trade ties with the Western alliance and opened a path to eventual membership in the bloc that currently has 28 member states.
The westward turn that has been signaled by the new opposition leaders in Kiev has alarmed the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine, especially in the southern Crimea area where ethnic Russians and those with longstanding ties to Russia are a majority.
Just before word of Yanukovich's appearance in Russia, Ukraine's lawmakers voted in former foreign minister, economist and opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk as interim prime minister to guide the unsteady and indebted country through to a presidential election on May 25 and a new legislative vote in summer.
Yatsenyuk, 39, said late Wednesday when his nomination was announced that stability would be the interim government's first priority so as to gain the confidence of international lenders to bail out the state finances on the brink of collapse.
In a statement, he charged that the former government had plundered the country's finances and siphoned off about $70 billion to private offshore accounts since Yanukovich came to power in 2010. Over the past three years, he said, Ukraine’s gold and hard currency reserves had shrunk from $37 billion to $15 billion.
“The country is on the verge of economic and political collapse, as they want to tear up the country,” he said in a speech to parliament shortly before the appointment. “And only we are capable to preserve the integrity of Ukrainian state in the interests of the Ukrainian people.”
Rossiya-24 television led its main evening news with reports of unrest in the Crimean administrative seat, Simferopol, where armed pro-Russian forces took control of the regional parliament early Thursday and demanded a vote on secession from Ukraine.
The gunmen, clad in camouflage and masks and reportedly armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and explosives, called themselves “the protectors of the Russian people of Crimea.”
They rejected an offer of talks with the new government, raised Russian national flags over the two buildings, and allowed lawmakers in for a session of the regional parliament, which is dominated by Yanukovich loyalists. The lawmakers passed a resolution calling for a referendum on the future status of the Crimea.
[Updated, 8:45 a.m. PST Feb. 27: The regional parliament set the referendum date for May 25 to coincide with Ukraine's presidential election. The statement said the referendum would be about “expanding the autonomy of the region," though the specific questions raised by the referendum were not specified.]
“Resulting from the unconstitutional capture of power in Ukraine by radical nationalists backed by armed gangs, the peace and calm in the Crimea is put under threat,” said a statement issued by the Crimean parliament after the vote.
On Wednesday, 10,000 Crimean Tatars, the Turkic Muslim descendants of those expelled during World War II by Josef Stalin, turned out to demand that Crimea remain within a united Ukraine. Clashes with Russian-speaking counter-demonstrators left two people dead and 35 injured, according to city health officials.
Kremlin officials have vowed not to interfere in the current Ukrainian political crisis and urged other foreign countries to do the same. However, President Vladimir Putin announced a broad battle-readiness drill for Russian troops in the western and central areas of the country, maneuvers that involve 150,000 soldiers, combat aircraft, tanks and naval vessels.
There was no mention in the military alert of drills involving vessels or land-based units of the Black Sea fleet, which is based in Sevastopol. But there were reports from Simferopol of Russian armored vehicles seen outside the gates of the military installations leased by Russia.
Ukraine's acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, announced on his Facebook page that "measures have been taken to counter extremist action and not allow the situation to escalate" in Crimea. Police under the direction of the Kiev-based interior forces were deployed around the parliament and an adjacent government building but there were no immediate reports of confrontation with the armed, Russian-speaking men occupying the buildings.
Ukraine's acting president, Oleaxandr Turchinov, demanded the Russian troops should immediately return to their bases.
“Any movement of the military especially with weapons outside the territory [of their bases] will be regarded by us as a military aggression,” Turchinov said in his speech in parliament Thursday morning.
In central Kiev, meanwhile, about 500 opposition activists, many still in helmets and paramilitary attire, surrounded the national parliament building Thursday afternoon demanding tougher action in the Crimea.
“We made a revolution here, we can now go and make a revolution in Crimea,” Oleh Astreyko, a 38-year-old tourist guide wearing a Soviet army green helmet and holding a stick, said in an interview with The Times. “I am afraid these politicians will be seeking a compromise like they did with Yanukovich all the time, and will lose the Crimea for good.”
Williams reported from Moscow and Loiko from Kiev.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times