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KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian parliament today delayed the formation of a new government, reflecting political tensions and economic challenges following the ouster of the Russia-backed president.
Parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchinov, who was named Ukraine’s interim leader after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital, said that a new government should be in place by Thursday, instead of today, as he had earlier indicated.
Turchinov is now nominally in charge of this strategic country of 46 million whose ailing economy faces the risk of default and whose loyalties are sharply torn between Europe and longtime ruler Russia.
Law enforcement agencies have issued an arrest warrant for Yanukovych over the killing of 82 people, mainly protesters — the bloodiest violence in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history — that precipitated him fleeing the capital on Friday after signing a deal with opposition leaders to end months of violent clashes between protesters and police.
For months, thousands of people have been protesting against Yanukovych’s decision to ditch an agreement for closer ties with the European Union and turn to Russia instead.
The parliament sacked some of Yanukovych’s lieutenants and named their replacement, but it has yet to appoint the new premier and fill all remaining government posts. Yanukovych’s whereabouts are unknown. He was last reportedly seen in the Crimea, a pro-Russia area.
The European Union’s top foreign policy official urged Ukraine’s new government to work out a reform program so that the West could consider financial aid to the country’s battered economy.
Catherine Ashton spoke today after meeting with the leaders of Ukraine’s interim authorities formed after President Viktor Yanukvoych fled the capital.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a top figure in the protests, suggested that Yanukvoych should be tried in the Hague, Netherlands.
Protesters, meanwhile, removed a Soviet star from the top of the Ukrainian parliament building, the Verkhovna Rada. “The star on top of the Verkhovna Rada is no longer there,” said Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the nationalist Svoboda party, which has been a strong force in the protest movement.
Meanwhile, a campaign for May 25 presidential elections was launched today, with Yanukovych’s archrival former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko widely seen as a top contender for the post. She was freed from prison on Saturday after spending 2 ½ years there. Her lawyer said, however, that she hasn’t yet declared whether to run.
Turchinov moved quickly to open a dialogue with the West, saying at a meeting with Ashton on Monday that the course toward closer integration with Europe and financial assistance from the EU were “key factors of stable and democratic development of Ukraine.”
Turchinov told Ashton on Monday that Ukraine and the EU should immediately revisit the closer ties that Yanukovych abandoned in November in favor of a $15 billion bailout loan from Russia that set off a wave of protests. Within weeks, the protests expanded to include outrage over corruption and human rights abuses, leading to calls for Yanukovych’s resignation.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has strongly condemned the new authorities, saying Monday they came to power as a result of an “armed mutiny” and their legitimacy is causing “big doubts.” ‘’If you consider Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks who are roaming Kiev to be the government, then it will be hard for us to work with that government,” Medvedev said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the West for turning a blind eye to what Moscow described as the opposition reneging on an agreement signed Friday to form a unity government and aiming to “suppress dissent in various regions of Ukraine with dictatorial and, sometimes, even terrorist methods.”
Although Russia has questioned the interim authorities’ legitimacy, European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly referred to Turchinov as the “interim president.”
NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Philip Breedlove, discussed Ukraine with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, on Monday and they agreed to keep each other informed about developments in the country.
Tensions, meanwhile, have been mounting in Crimea in southern Ukraine. Russia maintains a large naval base in Sevastopol that has strained relations between the countries for two decades. Pro-Russian protesters gathered in front of city hall in the port of Sevastopol on Monday chanting “Russia! Russia!”
The head of the city administration in Sevastopol quit Monday amid the turmoil, and protesters replaced a Ukrainian flag near the city hall building with a Russian flag.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position on the turmoil in Ukraine will be crucial to the future of Crimea and Ukraine. In recent days, Putin has spoken to President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders to discuss the Ukrainian crisis.
Today, Putin summoned top security officials to discuss the situation in Ukraine, but no details of the meeting were released by the Kremlin.
The current protest movement in Ukraine has been in large part a fight for the country’s economic future.
Ukraine has a large potential consumer market, an educated workforce, a significant industrial base and good natural resources, in particular rich farmland. Yet its economy is in tatters due to corruption, bad government and short-sighted reliance on cheap gas from Russia.
The public deficit is rising and the economy may be back in recession. The government burned through about a tenth of its $17.8 billion in foreign reserves last month to support the currency, which has fallen 6 percent since the protests began.
Ukraine’s acting finance minister said the country needs $35 billion (25.5 billion euros) to finance government needs this year and next and expressed hope for rapid Western help.