KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Fears that Ukraine could split in two mounted Saturday as regional lawmakers in the pro-Russian east questioned the authority of the national parliament. Parliament sought to oust President Viktor Yanukovych and he left the capital and protesters took control.
After a tumultuous few days that are changing Ukraine’s political destiny, Yanukovych left Kiev for the city of Kharkiv, his support base in the country’s Russian-speaking east. A presidential aide said he has no intention of abandoning power.
Attention shifted Saturday from the sprawling Kiev protest camp to Kharkiv, where governors, provincial officials and legislators gathered. Top Russian lawmakers joined the meeting, too, while thousands of angry protesters gathered outside, chanting “Ukraine is not Russia!”
[sharequote align=”center”]”Ukraine is not Russia!”[/sharequote]
Russia, the United States and the European Union are deeply worried about the future of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million whose loyalties and economy are divided between Europe and longtime ruler Moscow.
The leaders gathered in Kharkiv approved a statement calling on regional authorities to take full responsibility for the constitutional order on their territory.
Some called for forming volunteer units to protect against force by protesters from western regions. The assembly urged army units to maintain neutrality and protect ammunition depots.
“The events of recent days in the capital Kiev have brought central authorities to paralysis, and destabilized the situation of the government,” lawmaker Vadim Kolesnichenko said at the congress, according to Russian news agencies.
He accused the opposition of not upholding its side of a breakthrough agreement Friday with Yanukovych to order protesters to give up weapons and abandon protest camps.
Yanukovych is in Kharkiv to meet with voters and appear on local television, his aide said.
Also in Kharkiv is his main foe, jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko’s arrest in 2011 and conviction on charges of abuse of office were widely seen as a case of political revenge.
After a European-mediated deal between the president and the opposition Friday, the Ukrainian parliament voted to decriminalize the charge on which Tymoshenko was convicted.
A spokeswoman for Tymoshenko, Natasha Lysova, told The Associated Press that a decision taken by parliament Saturday means Tymoshenko must be freed immediately. Earlier Lysova had said Tymoshenko had already been freed.
Tymoshenko’s reappearance on the political scene could shake things up even more.