Ukraine's Government Disappears Overnight

The opposition now controls Kiev, but the fight for Ukraine's future is far from over.

Anti-government protesters guard a street leading to the presidential administration building in Kiev, on February 22. (Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili)

Forty-eight hours ago, Ukraine suffered the deadliest day in its three-month uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych. Twenty-four hours ago, Yanukovych inked a deal with opposition leaders to hold early elections and limit his powers. Now, in the space of a day, everything has changed, again.

Yanukovych has fled to an unknown location in the country’s east or south near the Russian border, where his support is strongest, while parliament has voted 328-0 to remove the president from office and hold early presidential elections in May. The opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who will likely run in those elections, has arrived in Kiev after being released from prison.

But what’s most striking is just how quickly Yanukovych’s government has crumbled all around him, particularly in the capital. The Ukrainian parliament is now effectively running the country. Security forces have stopped guarding administrative buildings and sided with the protesters. Simon Shuster, a journalist with Time, captured the eerie scene in Kiev best:

Here’s a live feed of Kiev’s Independence Square, which has alternated between utter devastation and wild jubilation, relative calm and frenetic activity, for months now. The maidan is the focal point of the 'Euromaidan' protest movement, which took shape 94 days ago in response to the president's overtures to Russia and rejection of an EU treaty (and has since metastasized into a broader campaign against Yanukovych and official corruption, and for democracy and human rights).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, meanwhile, has video of Ukrainian civilians patrolling Kiev's ghostly quiet government district:

In a scene reminiscent of when Libyan rebels overtook Muammar Qaddafi’s compound in 2011, protesters also stormed the president’s abandoned administrative and residential compounds on Saturday, marveling at the decadence of a leader they have long denounced as thoroughly corrupt. Finds included a golf course, giant boat, and zoo with peacocks.

While the attention may now be on Kiev's extraordinary metamorphosis, it’s critically important to watch what happens elsewhere in the country—to see whether the rest of Ukraine falls in line with Kiev or fragments into two or more competing power centers.

Ukraine, as we've noted before, is deeply divided along longstanding economic, ethnic, geographic, and linguistic lines—divisions that have grown more pronounced since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Broadly speaking, the opposition's strongholds are the pro-Europe, Ukrainian-speaking west and center, while Yanukovych's support base is in the pro-Russia, Russian-speaking east and south.

Wikimedia Commons

A breakdown of votes cast during a February 2010 run-off election between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko offers another perspective on these divisions (Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol in the south, and Yanukovych, a native Russian speaker, is from Donetsk in the east):

Wikimedia Commons

So far, the signals from the country's south and east are troubling. In an interview from the eastern city of Kharkiv, the country's second-largest metropolis, Yanukovych insisted he was the victim of a coup, and that he would not resign or leave the country. According to RT, officials from Ukraine's pro-Yanukovych southeast gathered in Kharkiv on Saturday and committed to restoring “constitutional order” in the face of Kiev's upheaval. Russian officials were also present at the summit, which has led to speculation about Moscow asserting control over Crimea or other southeastern regions.

RFE/RL has more on the conference in Kharkiv:

Although the congress did not back open calls for secession—advocating that separatism is a criminal offense in Ukraine—the resolution said that "until constitutional order and legality are restored in the country … all local power is taken upon themselves by local organs of self-government."

The meeting—and sizeable pro-Russia demonstrations in cities across the region on February 22—has aroused fears that Ukraine might collapse into two or more pieces under the weight of its current transformation. The congress was attended by a high-level Russian delegation headed by Duma Deputy and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Aleksei Pushkov and including the governors of four adjacent Russian regions.

It's also worth keeping an eye on what happens among Ukraine's opposition leaders. The triumvirate —Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda (Freedom) party, Vitali Klitschko’s of the Udar (Punch) party, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party—may have united against Yanukovych, but their uneasy alliance is beset by power struggles and ideological divides, particularly between the mainstream opposition parties and the far-right Svoboda party (what U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, in his leaked "Fuck the EU" call with U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland, referred to as "troubles in the marriage"). Now the powerful Tymoshenko, who some activists support and others view as part of the corrupt political elite, has entered the mix. And the extent to which these leaders can win over the diverse mix of protesters in the street remains an open question.

Kiev may be a city suddenly transformed. But we won't know for some time what that means for the future of the country.