KIEV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s ousted P president Viktor Yanukovych made his first appearance Friday since fleeing Kiev a week ago, imploring Ukrainians that he was still the country’s president despite his forced exile in the southern Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu.
Visibly shaken but unable to contain his trademark grin, Yanukovych gave a rambling and bizarre press conference that made it seem as he was still living in a parallel world, where violent clashes between protesters and riot police had not left dozens dead and caused his own allies in government and the security services to abandon him. Speaking in Russian for over an hour, Yanukovych insisted that he was still the president and said Ukraine’s new government was illegitimate.
“Nobody overthrew me,” Yanukovych said, claiming he was forced to flee Kiev under threat from Western-backed, far-right extremists who threatened him and his family. “I intend to fight for the future of Ukraine against those who are attempting to saddle it with fear and terror,” he said.
Asked why he was in Rostov, where he arrived early this morning accompanied by a squadron of fighter jets, Yanukovych said he had come because an “old friend” lived nearby, though he declined to say who it was. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains several residences in southern Russia, he is evidently not one of them. Yanukovych said he had spoken to Putin — who is known to despise him and once kept him waiting for four hours — by telephone when he arrived in Russia and assumed the two would meet when Putin “had the possibility of doing so.”
Visibly affronted by Putin’s week-long silence on his overthrow, Yanukovych at times sounded like a spurned boyfriend in denial after a bad breakup. “As soon as we meet, I’ll understand what he thinks and we’ll probably have a discussion about what happened,” Yanukovych said. He added that he did not think Russia could remain indifferent to the fate of Ukraine and implored the Kremlin to say something.
“Knowing Vladimir Putin’s character, I’m surprised that he is keeping quiet so restrainedly,” he said.
Ukraine’s new government sounded a red alert Friday over what its Interior Ministry claims is a Russian “invasion” of the separatist-minded, Russian-speaking autonomous southern province of Crimea. Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that it thought the crisis, which has seen armed men seize two airports and Russian troops spotted around the Crimean peninsula, was an internal Ukrainian matter in which it would not intervene.
Yanukovych insisted that Ukraine’s parliament was illegitimate and referred to Ukraine’s new government as “the opposition.” He spent long periods giving meandering speeches about a short-lived, EU-mediated agreement that lasted mere hours after it was signed a week ago and justifying his refusal to sign a deal with the EU last November, which sparked the protests on Kiev’s Independence Square that eventually led to his ouster.
Asked how he made it to Rostov, Yanukovych told a chase story bordering on the slapstick. When Interior Ministry forces guarding him abandoned their posts, Yanukovych fled from Kiev to the pro-Russian eastern city of Kharkov, during which his convoy fell under machine-gun fire.
Upon arriving there, Yanukovych said, his security service learned the town was already full of “radically motivated groups” out for his head. Yanukovych then sent his followers to his hometown of Donetsk while setting off in a helicopter for the city of Lugansk on the Russian border. Once in flight, however, air traffic control said fighter jets would prevent any attempts to cross the Russian border to safety, and Yanukovych landed in Donetsk.
“There was no fear here. There has never been any fear,” Yanukovych said. “These were security measures that had to be accounted for and followed.”
From there, he said he zigzagged across the country by car until arriving in Crimea, where he learned of threats against his family and eventually made it to Russia — presumably by boat — thanks to “patriotically motivated officers who fulfilled their duty and helped me keep my life.”
His attempt to elicit sympathy by evoking the plight of his eldest son underscored how cut off Yanukovych is from events on the ground. A dentist by training, Alexander Yanukovych’s vast wealth, acquired at lightning speed thanks to government contracts, made him one of the most hated men in Ukraine. Anger at the corruption of Yanukovych’s extended “family” was one of the key motivating factors behind the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan.
Yanukovych declined to say what Putin had told him, but appeared to have taken a page from the Kremlin’s rhetorical playbook since arriving in Russia. Protesters against him were “nationalists” representing “the absolute minority in Ukraine.” Presidential elections set for May 25 were “illegal”: He would not participate. Riot police were “unarmed” and stood fast while protesters rained down a storm of rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails on them.
Despite claiming that he would return to Ukraine as soon as his security could be guaranteed, Yanukovych’s attempt to prove that he was still the country’s leader were farcical. At times he seemed to improve on Richard Nixon’s maxim on presidential power: If the president says he’s still the president, he’s still the president.
“The laws that were passed violently in parliament — I don’t recognize them and I never will,” Yanukovych said. “I didn’t pass them, and that means these laws weren’t taken. That’s the legal act that proves these laws weren’t passed.”
Citing Ukraine’s constitution, Yanukovych continued to claim that “If the president hasn’t resigned, if he’s alive — and as you can see, I’m alive — if that president hasn’t been impeached in parliament, he is the acting president.”
Parliament passed a bill impeaching Yanukovych shortly after he signed the EU-mediated truce Feb. 21 and quickly set about dismantling all tenets of his power. After dozens of members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions defected or fled, opposition lawmaker Olexander Turchynov was elected speaker and appointed acting president.
Ukraine’s new government, led by Turchynov and acting Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, has issued an international arrest warrant for Yanukovych over his involvement in last week’s violence and asked Russia to extradite him.
Yanukovych denied he gave police the order to open fire on protesters with sniper rifles and claimed they had only acted in self-defense. He admitted that he had met with representatives from the Maidan, seemingly confirming a report by anti-Yanukovych journalist Mustafa Nayyem that he had been visited by militant right-wing leader Dmytro Yarosh, now deputy chief of Ukraine’s security council.
In his closing remarks, Yanukovych appealed to Ukraine’s “so-called new government” to “come to your senses and stop this lawlessness.” They were responsible for the violence; events in Ukraine now were a “spectacle”; the truth would eventually prevail.
By that point, the press conference had descended into utter farce. Yanukovych told an incoherent story about how he had gone to a train station to personally stop any violence in the 2004 Orange Revolution, which kept him away from Ukraine’s presidency until 2010. He denied having any foreign assets, even though Switzerland and Austria seized his bank accounts and investigated his firms Friday.
Lastly, Yanukovych offered a scarcely plausible defense of the fabulous, absurdly vulgar trappings of wealth protesters found at his palatial estate outside Kiev. Former president Leonid Kuchma had offered him a house there in 1999: After that he set about renovating it with $3.2 million of his own money. The rest, he said, belonged to the government — presumably including the restaurant in the shape of a pirate ship, the zoo, the golf course, and the yacht club.
Everything that had supposedly been found there was a trick to discredit him. It’s a long list. The cognac and vodka bottles with his face on them. The ostriches and the ponies. The Mac desktop with Windows installed on it. The classic cars. The golden loaf of bread.
Yanukovych’s supporters — if he still has any left — will have been looking for what Americans call a “presidential” performance. Instead, they got a performance appropriate for a man with two criminal convictions for gang-related crimes and nowhere left to run. It was a “Dean Scream” for the post-Soviet age. Fleeing Kiev put the tombstone over Yanukovych’s political career. This added the final literary flourish. Finitta la commedia.