With a warrant issued for his arrest over the “mass killing of civilians” and his once-unquestioned presidential power in tatters, Viktor Yanukovych appears to have embarked on a cross-country journey over the past three days to parts of Ukraine where he is most likely to find friends, according to the acting head of the police.
Sightings and speculation have followed Mr. Yanukovych, but on Monday, as his exact whereabouts remained unknown, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakhov posted on his official Facebook page a rundown of where Mr. Yanukovych has been sighted since leaving Kiev on Friday.
Mr. Yanukovych surfaced Saturday in the eastern city of Kharkiv, just 40 kilometres from the Russian border, in the heartland of his base of support. In a videotaped interview, he bitterly likened opposition protesters to Nazis and declared he was still president and would not leave the country. That was his last public appearance.
Zurab Alasania, a journalist in Kharkiv, said he was certain Mr. Yanukovych had stayed Saturday night at an unofficial – but well-known – presidential residence in the forest outside the city. Mr. Alasania said that he had seen Mr. Yanukovych himself, and that the deposed president had been in the company of Andriy Klyuev, his chief-of-staff, and several bodyguards. Former speaker of parliament Volodymyr Rybak – who has since deserted his former boss – was also there, Mr. Alasania said.
Mr. Yanukovych had been expected to appear Saturday at a conference of pro-Russian politicians in Kharkiv, but after recording his video address, he instead headed south by helicopter to Donetsk, where he reportedly tried to board a charter flight headed to Russia. The plane was blocked, however, by border guards because it lacked the proper documentation to fly out of the country, and after spending a few hours in a state residence, Mr. Yanukovych and his entourage left by car about 10 p.m., headed for Crimea in the south of the country.
According to Mr. Avakhov, after a long night of driving, the cortege on Sunday reached the Crimean peninsula, which dangles into the Black Sea some 400 kilometres southwest of Donetsk. Instead of using a state residence in the area, the motorcade stopped at a private sanatorium, one of many that dot the popular resort area. There, Mr. Yanukoych learned that the parliament had granted presidential powers to a new speaker.
The group hastily left for a military airport in the city of Sevastopol, but learned that Mr. Avakhov and the new head of the national security service were there, according to the police account. They turned back.
Mr. Yanukovych and his entourage then went to a private residence in the coastal town of Balaclava, arriving just before midnight, according to Mr. Avakhov. There, Mr. Yanukovych asked who of his security contingent wanted to stay with him. Finding that only a few were still loyal, he scrawled a note relinquishing his guards. Mr. Avakhov then wrote that Mr. Yanukovych, Mr. Klyuyev and the remaining loyal guards then got into three cars and “left in an unknown direction.”
Asked where he thought Mr. Yanukovych now was, Oleg Zakapko, a leader of the growing pro-Western protests in Kharkiv, picked up his mobile phone and called activists in Balaclava, where Mr. Yanukovych reportedly owned a sprawling seafront property and a luxury yacht. “Is the president there?” Mr. Zakapko asked. “He’s left and gone to Yalta,” came the reply. “I can see from here that the bandit’s yacht is missing.”
With reports Mark MacKinnon and Associated Press
Why would Viktor Yanukovych head to Crimea? The area is a pro-Russia part of Ukraine separated from the rest of the country in many ways.
Where it is: The Crimean peninsula juts into the Black Sea, all but an island except for a narrow strip of land connecting it to the mainland. On its eastern shore, a finger of land reaches out almost to Russia. It’s best known in the West as the site of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill sealed the postwar division of Europe.
Why it’s part of Ukraine: Crimea became part of Ukraine when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to his native land in 1954. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine. Nearly 60 per cent of its population of two million still identify themselves as Russians.
The Black Sea fleet: On Crimea’s southern shore sits the port city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its thousands of naval personnel. Russia kept its half of the Soviet fleet, but was rattled in 2009 when Mr. Yanukovych’s predecessor warned it would have to leave the port by 2017. Mr. Yanukovych later agreed to extend the Russian lease until 2042.
The Tatars: The 1991 fall of the Soviet Union brought the return of the Crimean Tatars, who had been brutally deported in 1944 under Stalin. They make up about 12 per cent of Crimea’s population.