WASHINGTON – Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich fled his palace and the presidency under gunfire on Saturday, crying coup d’etat as the country’s parliament voted for his ouster and declared the embattled leader unfit to carry out his duties.
After a failed attempt to board an aircraft to Russia, Yanukovich compared unfolding events in his country to the rise of fascism in Germany.
“We are seeing a repetition of the Nazi overthrow of the 1930s in Germany,” he said, calling all actions taken Saturday by the parliament illegal.
The vote for his removal was unanimous.
Members of parliament stood, applauded, and sang the national anthem after it declared the president constitutionally unable to perform his role.
“The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d’etat,” Yanukovich said, as he fled to the northeast of the former Soviet republic of 46 million people.
With the speaker of Ukraine’s legislature physically beaten and the presidential palace under siege, Yanukovich’s departure was unexpected. Less than 24 hours before, he had agreed to a deal capitulating to many of his opposition’s demands.
Yanukovich was democratically elected in 2010, in a poll that divided Ukraine geographically. Eastern provinces of the country align closely with Russia in cultural and economic ties; Western provinces hope for closer integration with the European Union.
Chiding protesters to his EU colleagues, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hit on similar themes as Yanukovich, calling those on the streets continuing their protest “extremists and pogromists.”
Historically, pogroms in Europe were violent protests aimed at the persecution of Jews.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy, Vladimir Lukin, said in a television interview Saturday: “I do not understand, frankly, how after recognizing the legitimacy of President Yanukovich, the parliament, all the state structures, my European colleagues can then come to revolutionary and terrorist Maidan and say there ‘down with the government’ they recognized.”
The events are a stark reversal for Putin’s dream of recreating as much as possible of the Soviet Union in a new Eurasian Union, in which Moscow had counted on Yanukovich to deliver Ukraine as a central member.
Just after his departure from Kiev – where raging fires and hundreds of casualties over recent days shocked residents of the historic city – parliament also voted to expedite the release of opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
She had been jailed by Yanukovich on corruption charges after a bruising political battle for the premiership.
Tymoshenko was released shortly after the decree. The 53-year-old, known for her distinctive blonde braid, was jailed by a court under Yanukovich over a natural gas deal with Russia that she arranged while serving as premier before he took office. The EU had long considered her a political prisoner and her freedom was one of the main demands it had for closer ties with Ukraine during years of negotiations – which ended when Yanukovich abruptly turned toward Moscow in November.
She had served as a leader of the Orange Revolution of mass demonstrations that overturned a fraudulent election victory for Yanukovich in 2004, but after a divisive term as prime minister she lost to him in an election in 2010.
“Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky, as a dictatorship has ended,” she told reporters after her release from the hospital, where she had been held under guard for most of her imprisonment since 2011.
Speaking to a crowd she said that a cancer has been removed from Ukraine and that those who shot on protest “heroes” would be held accountable.
While the deal cut on Friday between opposition leaders and Yanukovich set elections for December of this year, developments in parliament on Saturday shortened that time frame.
Presidential elections will now take place in May.
In a statement, the country’s military said it is “loyal to their constitutional obligations” and referred to the events in Kiev as domestic political conflict.
“The unshakable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Saturday.
“Going forward, we will work with our allies, with Russia and with appropriate European and international organizations to support a strong, prosperous, unified and democratic Ukraine.”
Great Britain issued a statement, saying that it would work with the new Ukrainian government. Poland said that the developments do not amount to a coup attempt.
Reuters contributed to this report.