Yanukovich declares protests a coup after fleeing capital; parliament demands his resignation

Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev yesterday — and apparently so did much of his security force and perhaps even his ministers. The police in Kyiv have switched sides, now claiming that they serve the people and not the Yanukovich government. Protesters who spent weeks bottled up in Independence Square have now taken control of the capital of Ukraine, while the Ukrainian parliament struggles to keep the country from splitting in two:

Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital on Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament sought to oust him and form a new government. An aide to President Viktor Yanukovych said he had left Kiev for his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east, but that he has no intention of abandoning power.

CBS News correspondent Holly Williams reports from Kiev that the ministry that controls the police force said it now serves the Ukrainian people and shares their desire for speedy change.

In a special parliament session, lawmakers warned that the country risks being split in two. The country’s western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine – which accounts for the bulk of the nation’s economic output – favors closer ties with Russia.

The parliament may want to prevent a split, but they’re not sitting on their hands, either. They have called for elections on May 25, seven months earlier than the agreement between Euromaidan and the Yanukovich government. That has the potential to split the country even further, if the eastern provinces remain loyal to Yanukovich. They also demanded Yanukovich’s resignation:

CNN wondered earlier what happened to the president. His departure from Kyiv was so abrupt and complete that even his opulent residence was left completely unguarded:

Yanukovich ended up in Kharkiv, where he gave a televised address claiming to be the victim of a coup:

“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and bandits and a coup d’etat,” Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and making long pauses in his speech.

He said decisions made by parliament Friday and Saturday “are all illegal” and compared the situation to the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. He said he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament, which include trimming his powers and releasing his jailed arch-rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The president said his car had been shot at, adding: “But I have no fear. I am overwhelmed by grief for our country. I feel responsibility.”

The eastern provinces want to call up volunteer militias to reinstate Yanukovich:

The president was in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered alongside top Russian lawmakers and approved a statement calling on regional authorities to take full responsibility for constitutional order.

Some called for the formation of volunteer militias to defend against protesters from western regions, even as they urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.

If they’re looking for help from the army, they will be sorely disappointed. The military in Ukraine insists that they will remain neutral in the political fight:


And as if all this wasn’t enough, reports this morning say that Yulia Tymoshenko has been released from prison:

That will fuel the opposition’s passion and perhaps Yanukovich’s supporters as well. How long before Yanukovich gets desperate enough to call for Russian tanks to reinstall him in Kyiv? We’ll see, but the Olympics will finish tomorrow. After that, all bets are off.

Update: Lenta reports that the governor of the Kharkiv region and the mayor of Kharkiv proper have both fled to Russia (via Julia Ioffe). Maybe Yanukovich’s support in the eastern part of Ukraine isn’t as robust as he’d like to think.