Ukraine’s parliament voted on Saturday to remove President Viktor Yanukovich from office, hours after he abandoned his Kiev office to protesters and denounced what he described as a coup.
The apparent toppling of the pro-Russian leader looks likely to dramatically alter the future of the former Soviet republic of 46 million people, pulling it closer to Europe and away from Moscow’s orbit.
It is also a stark reversal for Russian President Vladimir 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.
The Ukrainian parliament, which decisively abandoned Yanukovich after loyalists defected, declared the president constitutionally unable to carry out his duties and set an early election for May 25.
Deputies in the assembly stood, applauded and sang the national anthem.
In a television interview shortly beforehand, which the station said was conducted in the eastern city of Kharkiv, Yanukovich said he would not resign or leave the country, and called decisions by parliament “illegal”.
“The events witnessed by our country and the whole world are an example of a coup d’état,” he said, comparing it to the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in the 1930s. He said he had come under fire. “My car was shot at. I am not afraid. I feel sorrow for my country,” he told UBR television.
Despite his defiance, the dismantling of his authority seemed all but complete with his cabinet promising a transition to a new government, the police declaring themselves behind the protesters and his jailed arch adversary expected to go free.
Among a series of acts aimed at removing his government, parliament voted to free jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Her daughter said Tymoshenko was already free under Ukrainian law but still in the hospital where she has been held for treatment.
The newly-installed interior minister declared that the police now stood with demonstrators they had fought for days, when central Kiev became a war zone with 77 people killed.
At the president’s headquarters, Ostap Kryvdyk, who described himself as a protest commander, said some protesters had entered the offices but there was no looting. “We will guard the building until the next president comes,” he told Reuters. “Yanukovich will never be back.”
The grounds of Yanukovich’s residence outside Kiev were also being guarded by “self-defense” militia of protesters.