Ukraine looks West amid turmoil

February 24, 2014 - 7:02:44 am

Ukrainians stand in front of a sign with the picture of Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev’s Independence Square yesterday. 

KIEV: Ukraine’s new interim president pledged to put the country back on course for European integration now Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich had been ousted, while the United States warned Russia against sending in its forces.

As rival neighbours east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kiev must not lead to the country breaking apart, acting president Oleksander Turchinov said yesterday that Ukraine’s new leadership wanted relations with Russia on a “new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine’s European choice”.

A day after Yanukovich fled to the Russian-speaking east following dozens of deaths during street protests aimed at toppling him, parliament named new speaker Turchinov as interim head of state. An ally of the ousted leader’s long jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko, he aims to swear in a government by tomorrow that can provide authority until a presidential election on May 25.

With battle-hardened, pro-Western protesters in control of central Kiev and determined to hold their leaders to account, lawmakers rushed through decisions to cement their power, display their rejection of rampant corruption and bring to book officials who ordered police to fire on Independence Square.

But whoever takes charge as interim prime minister faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis, even if the EU makes good on new offers of aid that may help make up for loans that Russia has frozen.

Scuffles in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kiev and those anxious to stay close to Moscow revived fears of separatism that a week earlier were focused on the west, where Ukrainian nationalists had disowned Yanukovich and proclaimed self-rule.

President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, was asked on US television about the possibility of Russia sending troops to Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin had hoped Yanukovich would keep closely allied to Moscow.

“That would be a grave mistake,” Rice said. “It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see a country split. It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate.”

Yanukovich’s flight into hiding left Putin’s Ukraine policy in tatters, on a day he had hoped eyes would be on the grand finale to the Sochi Olympics. The Kremlin leader spoke yesterday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose foreign minister had brokered a short-lived truce in Kiev on Friday.

They agreed Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” must be maintained, Merkel’s spokesman said in a statement.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague was asked if Russia might “send in the tanks” to defend its interests among ethnic Russians in the east and on the Crimea peninsula, where Moscow bases its Black Sea Fleet: “It would really not be in the interests of Russia to do any such thing,” he told the BBC.

Earlier this month, a Kremlin aide warned that Moscow could intervene and accused Washington of breaching their 1994 treaty under which Russia removed Soviet nuclear weapons from Ukraine.

It is unlikely the United States and its allies in NATO would risk an outright military confrontation with Russia but such rhetoric, laden with echoes of the Cold War, underlines the high stakes in Ukraine, whose 46 million people and sprawling territory are caught in a geopolitical tug of war.

EU officials offered financial aid to a new government and to revive a trade deal that Yanukovich spurned under Russian pressure in November, sparking the protests that drove him from office after 82 deaths last week, many from police sniper fire.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Ukraine today to discuss economic help, the EU said.

The United States has also promised help. But budgets are tight in the EU and Washington, and international creditors like the IMF may remain wary of Yanukovich’s opponents, whose years in government before him were no economic success story.

However, concern about instability and a popular desire to be seen backing what looks to Western voters like a democratic movement threatened by Russian diktat may loosen purse strings — at least to tide Ukraine over until after the elections.

In Russia, where Putin hoped to count on Ukraine as a key element in a union of ex-Soviet states and might also fear the Kiev uprising could inspire his own opponents, the finance minister said the next tranche of a $15bn loan package agreed in December would not be paid, at least before a new government is formed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to his office, told US Secretary of State John Kerry the opposition had “seized power” by force by ignoring the EU-brokered truce on Friday that left Yanukovich in office for the time being. Lavrov said that power-sharing agreement should be revived. REUTERS

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