Security and police forces seemed to melt away from the embattled Independence Square in Kiev and throughout the city, as it awoke on Feb. 21, the day after opposition and government forces signed an agreement that effectively ended turmoil in Kiev’s streets. In a rapid and remarkable series of developments the following day, the parliament of Ukraine voted to oust President Viktor F. Yanukovych and turned over the powers of the presidency to its new speaker, Oleksandr V. Turchnov.
Turchnov, who headed Ukraine’s state security service, is a close ally of former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who was freed from prison on Saturday. The dizzying pace of change, as Ukraine appeared to step back from the brink of greater disorder, even civil war, continued on Feb. 23 as an arrest warrant was issued for the ousted president. Yanukovych’s own party denounced him because of the deadly crackdown on protesters—at least 82 people died in clashes between security forces and anti-government protestors—and Ukraine’s military vowed to support the new government.
The invigorated parliament then voted to nationalize the extensive private residence of the deposed Yanukovych.
Yanukovych, who has refused to resign, remained defiant—at least on television. He called parliament’s weekend maneuvers “a coup d’état” by “a group of gangsters,” adding that “Ukraine is witnessing the return of the Nazis.” Despite his strong words, Yanukovych attempted to flee the country on Feb. 22. His plane was stopped by border authorities, and his current whereabouts are unknown.
Leaders of mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine gathered in Kharkiv to challenge the legitimacy of the national parliament. They also made clear they would take control of their territories in a move that appeared to increase the possibility of a split in the former Soviet republic.
The rapid political changes came at a price. On Sunday priests were praying with demonstrators as coffins were displayed in front of the crowd on Kiev’s Maidan (“Independence”) Square.
“There are too many deaths. They have given their young lives for Ukraine,” a demonstrator said.
Another agreed, saying she feared more bloodshed. “We should not destroy the barricades until we replace all authorities,” she added, “we shouldn’t bring them down under any circumstances. The beast is wounded but we don’t know what this wounded beast will be doing.”
On Feb. 22, a 28-year-old university lecturer killed in the explosion of violence in Kiev on Feb. 20 was laid to rest in Lviv. Bohdan Solchanyk, a lecturer in modern history at Lviv’s National Catholic University, was mourned by his family, friends and hundreds of weeping students and other young people.
Bishop Borys Gudziak, who heads the Ukrainian Catholic eparchy of France and the Benelux countries and serves as the university president, presided at the funeral. “Our community is broken up about this,” he said, describing Solchanyk as a “man full of life, very much engaged in society, concerned for the future of Ukraine.
“The country in these days is profoundly traumatized,” said Bishop Gudziak. Of the loss of life among the protestors, like Solchanyk, he said, “There is profound sadness, bewilderment, but also inspiration.
“What is very important for all of us to try to fathom is the mystery of this iniquity, raw evil that was confronted by innocent young people.”
He added, “In this atmosphere of tension and emotion, it is important to be messengers of peace,” he continued. “What will be very important is that the church is sacramentally accompanying the people with prayer for the departed, with blessings for the injured and with a healing touch to a society that has been traumatized.”
The church has tried to be close to the people during this time of unrest, he said, though “we also realize that we control precious little. We don’t pretend to be politicians or leaders of political movements.”