People rejoice at Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Protesters took control of Ukraine’s capital Saturday, seizing the president’s office as parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — From the moment protesters claimed to control Ukraine’s capital until the triumphant release of their blond-braided political heroine from jail, Saturday was a momentous day for this country.
President Viktor Yanukovych’s fate is in the balance, along with the direction of his nation.
Each development has been more dramatic or more confusing than the last. Here’s a guide to what brought things to this point and what’s happening now:
As the crisis has deepened, concerns have grown that it could split the country in two.
Protests began in November when Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign a long-anticipated political association and free trade agreement with the European Union, opting instead for closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych is widely despised in western Ukraine, but has strong support in the Russian-speaking east, where he’s from, as well as in the south.
The pro-Western demonstrators saw Yanukovych’s move as a betrayal of national interests and submission to Moscow, and demanded that that he reverse his decision. Their number swelled to hundreds of thousands after a brutal crackdown by riot police. Their demands grew more radical to include Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections.
His supporters in the east, meanwhile, see the protesters and the opposition as manipulated and financed by the West, and feel greater economic and cultural connections to Russia.
Yanukovych left the capital Saturday for Kharkiv, the heart of his eastern support base, and accused the parliament in Kiev of staging a coup. The governor and mayor of Kharkiv fled to Russia.
Weeks of peaceful rallies turned abruptly violent in January after parliament, dominated by Yanukovych supporters, passed repressive laws intended to quash the protest. Radical protesters hurled firebombs and stones at police, who retaliated with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. At least four people died and hundreds were injured.
Yanukovych made some concessions, retracting the repressive legislation and firing his prime minister. The opposition kept pushing for constitutional changes that would limit the presidential powers. The refusal by pro-Yanukovych lawmakers to endorse the amendments triggered new violence this week, when demonstrators assailed police and police fought back.
Firearms were widely used this time, resulting in a much higher death toll.
In the bloodiest day of fighting, scores were killed Thursday, including many by sniper fire. That hardened both sides.
Ukraine is strategically located and with a large consumer market and untapped economic potential, and the U.S., Russia and the EU have all tried to weigh in on its future.
Moscow sees what is now Ukraine as the birthplace of Russian statehood and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Most of modern-day Ukraine came under the control of the czars in the 1700s after being part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sees close economic and political ties with Ukraine as essential for the success of his project to build an alliance of ex-Soviet neighbors.
Russia has done its best to derail Ukraine’s pact with the EU with a mixture of trade sanctions and promises. Moscow offered a $15 billion bailout to help Ukraine avoid an imminent default, but so far has only provided $3 billion, freezing further disbursements pending the outcome of the ongoing strife.
EU leaders stepped up their negotiating efforts this week because of the violence on their eastern border. Two days of shuttle diplomacy produced a peace deal between the opposition and president.
But the opposition quickly took the upper hand, and Russia slammed the deal as tailored for the West.
On Saturday, protesters took control of the capital and police abandoned posts. The parliament voted to remove the president from power and set new elections for May 25.
The president accused the opposition of a coup and said he wouldn’t step down, but his rule appears to be crumbling.
His chief rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is now free from 2½ years in custody, and is promising to run for president. Tymoshenko is already confidently talking about joining the EU, but that prospect seems a long way off given Ukraine’s corrupt economy.
The sharp divide between east and west has fueled fears of a messy breakup of the country. That remains a risk, though all sides are pleading against it.
Isachenkov reported from Moscow.