Although most of the violence in Ukraine has subsided, the political situation is by no means resolved. Events unfolded at a dizzying rate over the weekend, and the future of the country is perhaps more uncertain now than it was a week ago. As of Sunday, President Viktor Yanukovych is missing, opposition leaders in parliament have claimed control of the country, and Yanukovych’s arch-rivalhas been released from prison and is plotting her return to power. It’s been a wild, tumultuous, and wholly dramatic last couple of days. Here's what's going on.
THE MISSING PRESIDENT
On Saturday night, Yanukovych was caught on camera fleeing his presidential palace in Kiev, and now, his whereabouts are unknown. It was initially reported that he’d been stopped by border security while trying to flee the country, which is nuts, since he ostensibly runs the country. In a video filmed at an undisclosed location, he claimed to still be the legitimate president of the country and denounced the recent events as a “coup,” but it’s unclear where he actually is. Some suspect that he’s holed up in the eastern portion of the city, which is largely pro-Russian and supportive of him as a leader, while the United Arab Emirates and Russia have been floated as other possible locations.
PARLIAMENT TAKES CONTROL
In Yanukovych’s absense, the country’s parliament has attempted to assert its control. Over the weekend, the legislature voted to remove Yanukovych from office and release former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his chief political rival, from prison. After that, parliamentary leaders appointed Speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, an ally of Tymoshenko, as interim president.
THE RETURN OF TYMOSHENKO
And then there’s Tymoshenko, who addressed thousands of protesters on Friday and has a very long history with the president. In the 2004 presidential election, she ran on the ticket against Yanukovych. The initial results had Yanukovych winning, but Tymoshenko and her running mate claimed the election was rigged. This led to the so-called “Orange Revolution,” a series of mass protests in the country that ultimately culminated in a recount and a new constitution. In the recount, Tymoshenko and her running mate were declared the winners, and she became prime minister.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Tymoshenko and Yanukovych squared off again in the 2010 presidential election, and despite her earlier popularity as an opposition leader, Tymoshenko lost. And as soon as she did, the new president threw her in prison on corruption charges that most observers agree were politically-motivated.
This is why, when Tymoshenko arrived at Independence Square in Kiev after parliament voted to release her from prison, it was something of an epic moment. Confined to a wheelchair due to unspecified “mistreatment” during her incarceration, she emphatically encouraged the protesters to keep on keeping on.
But her reputation is somewhat mixed; while she’s credited with ushering in some democratic reforms in 2004, she may be a bit corrupt herself, and some see her as an opportunist. Nevertheless, she’s assumed the voice of the opposition, and seeing as one of her allies is now the interim leader of the country, it’s not unlikely that she could be planning another presidential run of her own.
The interim president has said that “returning to a path of European integration” is his top priority; this would be a dramatic reversal for Ukraine, as Yanukovych’s decision to strengthen ties with Russia instead of the European Union was the catalyst for the original protests that forced him from power. If the country does indeed ally itself with the West, that’ll be very unwelcome news for Vladimir Putin, who’s spent a lot of money coercing Ukraine to move back into Russia’s sphere of influence.
What happens next is impossible to say, but to get an idea of the stakes here, consider U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. On Sunday, Rice said that it would be a “grave mistake” for Putin to send Russian troops into Ukraine. And that suggests that there’s a possibility that Putin will send Russian troops into Ukraine.
After a week of unrest, bloodshed and political drama, Ukraine is at a crossroads. Let’s hope the worst is over.