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Anti-government protestors rally in Kharkiv Sunday, just a few hundred metres away from opposing demonstrators who support closer ties with Russia. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)
Anti-government protestors rally in Kharkiv Sunday, just a few hundred metres away from opposing demonstrators who support closer ties with Russia. (Sergei Chuzavkov/AP)

Mark MacKinnon

Globe in Ukraine: Upheaval widens fractures between east and west Add to ...

In the west of this troubled country, police have disappeared and protesters rule the streets, declaring their pro-Western revolution victorious. In Crimea, to the south, anyone showing support for the street uprising in Kiev risks being assaulted by those who feel the country’s future – or at least their region’s – lies with Russia.

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Viktor Yanukovych is on the lam, and there’s a new acting president, but the struggle for this country that lies uncomfortably between Russia and the European Union is far from settled. Many believe Ukraine is now at risk of splitting apart.

All sides say they don’t want that to happen. But following a furious round of telephone diplomacy on Sunday that involved Moscow, Washington and Berlin, Russia announced it was withdrawing its ambassador from Kiev “in connection with the aggravation of the situation in Ukraine.”

Now that Kiev’s institutions are fully in the hands of the protest leaders, much will be determined in Kharkiv, which sits just 40 kilometres from the Russian border. On Saturday, governors from the south and east of the country – regions with Russian-speaking populations and thick ties to Moscow – gathered here in the country’s second largest city to condemn the “coup” in Kiev and call for the restoration of “constitutional order.”

That conference – which some had feared would include calls for separatism or Russian intervention in the country – ended with a somewhat milder declaration that renounced parliament in Kiev as “working under conditions of terror” and declared regional autonomy from the centre. “Until constitutional order and legality are restored in the country … all local power is taken upon themselves by local organs of self-government,” the final statement read.

In the Crimean city of Kerch, there were reports Sunday that pro-Russian demonstrators had taken down the blue-and-gold Ukrainian flag and replaced it with the white-blue-and-red Russian banner. Video appeared to show organizers of a small pro-Maidan – as the protest on Kiev’s central Independence Square is known in Ukrainian – demonstration in the city being chased and beaten Saturday by a group of pro-Russian men.

The nearby city of Sevastopol, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet under a deal between the two governments, saw thousands of protesters demand reunification with Russia. The Crimean peninsula was a part of Russia until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev made a “gift” of it to then-Soviet Ukraine.

Kharkiv, which Moscow made the capital of Ukraine from 1917 to 1934, saw duelling demonstrations on Sunday. Thousands of supporters of the Maidan rallied just a few hundred metres away from similar-sized, and angry, group that gathered under the slogan of anti-Maidan. The police remain in control here, though it’s not certain whom they regard as their ultimate boss.

In the western city of Lviv, security forces have deserted the streets after protesters attacked police stations, the prosecutor’s office and part of a military base to protest the use of deadly force in Kiev. The city has effectively declared autonomy from the central government until there are new presidential elections and reformed security services.

“The only boss I report to is the local community,” Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyy said in an interview Saturday with The Globe and Mail. Lviv is roughly as close to the border of Poland and the European Union as Kharkiv is to Russia, and ideas about the future of the country are wildly different in the two cities, with Lviv and the west desperate to integrate with the EU and many residents of Kharkiv and the east believing Ukraine’s fate must be linked to Russia’s. Mr. Sadovyy said his city’s autonomy was temporary, and condemned the politicians who attended the meeting in Kharkiv. “We are a single country and we will not give away a single metre of our land,” Mr. Sadovyy said. “No anti-Ukrainian plot to split the country will succeed.”

Adding to the sense of chaos are the swirling rumours regarding the fate of the deposed Mr. Yanukovych, who fled Kiev on Friday night, hours before opposition supporters took over his office and official residence.

Mr. Yanukovych’s spokeswoman said he was in Kharkiv on Saturday when he gave a televised address vowing he would not resign his presidency or leave Ukraine. However, it was not clear where he was when he recorded the video, which appeared to have been made in an anonymous hotel room.

Ukraine’s newly appointed Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, said Mr. Yanukovych and a group of armed men were prevented Saturday evening from flying out of the airport in the southeastern city of Donetsk because they lacked proper documents to board a charter flight.

Mr. Yanukovych and his guards reportedly got into a pair of cars and drove away from the airport. Various reports had him heading back to Kharkiv, or south to Sevastopol.

The deposed president was deserted Sunday by his own Party of Regions, which said in a statement that “all the responsibility” for the dozens killed in a week of violence in Kiev lay with Mr. Yanukovych, the party’s candidate in the past two elections.

“We condemn the flight and cowardice of Yanukovych. We condemn the betrayal. We condemn the criminal orders [he gave],” read a statement posted in Ukrainian and Russian on the Party of Regions website.

But the party, which appeared to be trying to preserve itself as an electoral force by ditching the unpopular Mr. Yanukovych, also slammed the “total intimidation and mob violence” in Kiev.

The Russian foreign ministry on Sunday said the opposition in Ukraine had broken an EU-brokered peace deal by “seizing power” and “refusing to lay down arms.” President Vladimir Putin, in Sochi for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel by telephone, a conversation in which both leaders said they supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Susan Rice, national security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, warned in a television interview that Russia would make “a grave mistake” if it sent military forces into Ukraine.

“It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or of the United States to see the country split,” Ms. Rice told NBC’s Meet the Press. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate.”

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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