Yanukovych: 'I am the legitimate president of Ukraine'


by Jacob Resneck and Doug Stanglin


Posted on February 28, 2014 at 1:05 PM

(USA Today) -- A defiant Viktor Yanukovych, in his first public remarks since he fled Ukraine, declared Friday that he is still the legitimate president of Ukraine but said he would not ask Russia for military intervention to back his claim.

Ukraine's parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from office on Saturday after he fled the capital and denounced events in the country as "a coup d'etat." That followed weeks of protests by hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Kiev demanding Yanukovych's ouster.

Yanukovych said power in Ukraine had been seized by "nationalists, pro-fascist people and gangsters who are the minority of the people of Ukraine."

Seated in front of four Ukrainian flags but speaking in Russian, Yanukovych said he was not removed from power but fled Kiev out of fear for his life from "terrorists." He also blamed the "irresponsible" West for backing protesters.

"I am the legitimate president of Ukraine, elected by the people of Ukraine, and was elected in a free and democratic vote," the 63-year-old leader declared.

Speaking to reporters in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia, he said he has not met with Russian President Vladimir Putin but said Moscow "cannot stay indifferent" to events in Ukraine.

He said Russia should "use all the leverage it has to prevent the chaos, the terror, that is unfolding in Ukraine" but added, "I do not accept any attempts for an intervention to break the sovereignty and integrity of Ukrainian territory."

Yanukovych's remarks come against the backdrop of new tensions in Ukraine, including the apparent attempted takeover of an airport near Sevastopol in Ukraine on Friday by unidentified armed men who may belong to the Russian military.

A top Ukrainian security official says two airports in Crimea are under Ukrainian control despite attempts by gunmen to "seize" them.

Ukraine's Interior Minister earlier Friday said Russian navy troops were blocking access to the airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, describing it as a "military invasion and occupation."

On other points:

• He denied that he ordered police to open fire on protesters in Kiev during massive demonstrations that left dozens of people dead.

• He said he would not take part in May presidential elections that were set up under a Feb. 21 agreement reached between Yanukovych, opposition leaders and the foreign ministers of France, Poland,Germany and Russia.

• He vowed "to keep on fighting for Ukraine's future" against new Ukrainian authorities that he described as "illegitimate."

Asked why he left Kiev for eastern Ukraine and eventually Russia after the agreement was announced, Yanukovych said he feared for his life and that his car had been "shot at from all sides."

"Nobody overthrew me, I was forced to leave Ukraine under the immediate threat to my life and the life of my family," he told reporters.

At one point he apologized for the unrest in Ukraine, saying "I didn't have the power and strength to maintain stability and to prevent it from happening."

He called for all sides to implement an agreement signed by him and the foreign ministers of France, Poland, Germany and Russia that that would set up new elections.

Parts of the agreement were been largely surpassed after Ukraine's parliament stripped Yanukovych of his presidency and elected an interim leader and new cabinet.

In a related development, Austria is freezing the bank accounts of fugitive Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, his son, Aleksander, and 16 others linked to Ukraine's former government, the Associated Press reports.

Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Weiss says the move is meant to ensure that no money is withdrawn from their accounts pending an EU-wide decision on whether Yanukovych and his closest associates should be put under financial and other sanctions.

Weiss did not name those affected. Weiss also said Friday that he could not speculate on how much money was in the frozen accounts.

As tensions mounted on the ground in Ukraine's Crimea region, the Russian foreign ministry refused to comment to the Associated Press about reports of an attempted takeover of two airports.

Russia's defense ministry, however, told the Interfax news agency that there had been "no provocative acts in relation to units and divisions" from Russian forces stationed in the region.

While no violence has so far been reported, any Russian military incursion in Crimea would dramatically raise the stakes in Ukraine's conflict, which saw the pro-Russian president flee last weekend after three months of anti-government protests. Moscow has vowed to protect Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Crimea, where it has a major naval base, and Ukraine and the West have warned Russia to stay away.

At Sevastopol's Belbek International Airport on Friday, around 15 to 20 members of a Ukrainian political party called the Russian Bloc representing ethnic Russians set up an informal blockade to support the armed men with their own civilian barricade a hundred meters from the airport. A private car has coffee, tea and sandwiches in its open trunk, free for anyone to take.

A Russian truck with insignias and number plates removed was spotted exiting the Sevastopol airport.

More checkpoints have been set up in the strongly pro-Russian city scrutinizing all arrivals and Reuters reported that Russian military helicopters have traveled to the Crimea.

The blockade may signal an unwillingness to negotiate with Kiev, said Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a policy research institute in Kiev.

"I heard the people blocking the airport were trying to prevent people from Kiev coming for negotiations," he said. "The (ethnic Russians in Crimea) did not want negotiations, because they are being controlled by Moscow. I guess they also do not know what to do in that situation."

In recent days large pro-Moscow rallies in Sevastopol have drawn thousands of jubilant supporters waving the Russian tricolor flag, while the Ukrainian national yellow and blue banner is a rare sight in the city.

Responding to the situation on Friday, Ukrainian lawmakers asked the the United Nations' Security Council to address the country's political turmoil.

On Friday, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, one of Russia's most outspoken ultranationalist politicians, paid a surprise visit to the city and gave a speech in front of the city's administration building.

"All the roads, all the ports, all the communications are under the control of the provincial Crimean government," he declared to thunderous applause of hundreds of people. "I don't want you to worry whether anything bad will happen tomorrow -- let's welcome the Russian flag that is flying over government buildings."

He said the people in Sevastopol could count on Russia's support and said that the land had long been part of Russia – a reference to the fact that Crimea was ceded to Ukraines Soviet republic in 1954.

"I promise that Russia will render you all kinds of assistance – moral, economic and political," he said.

He then took an opportunity to take a swipe at Ukrainian nationalists who had introduced a bill to downgrade the official status of the Russian language.

"If they want somewhere only to speak Ukrainian then here we will speak only Russian," he said.

On Thursday, armed men seized the Crimea parliament as Russian jets streaked near the border and a newly created Ukraine government formed to try to end a crisis that threatens to split the country following the ouster of its president.

After capturing the parliament and government offices in Simferopol the masked men raised the Russian flag over the parliament building.

In a separate development Friday, the National Bank of Ukraine — the nation's central bank — put a $1,500 limit on foreign currency withdrawals in a bid to counter falling values in the hryvnia, Ukraine's currency.

Jacob Resneck reported form Sevastopol, UKraine; Contributing: Janelle Dumalaon from Berlin