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Ukraine’s parliament moves swiftly to dismantle president’s government

KIEV, Ukraine – A day after President Viktor Yanukovych fled the Ukrainian capital and was removed from power by a unanimous vote in parliament, lawmakers moved swiftly Sunday to dismantle the remaining vestiges of his government by firing top cabinet members, including the foreign minister.

With parliament, led by the speaker, Oleksandr Turchynov, firmly in control of the federal government – if not yet the country as a whole – lawmakers began an emergency session Sunday by adopting a law restoring state ownership of Yanukovych’s opulent presidential palace, which he had privatized.

Parliament voted to grant Turchynov authority to carry out the duties of the president of Ukraine, adding to his authority to lead the government that lawmakers had approved Saturday.

Beyond that, parliament did not take any further action to appoint interim leaders, but speculation about an immediate major role for the freed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was squashed Saturday afternoon when she issued a statement asking not to be considered for the post again.

Depending on her health, Tymoshenko, who has complained of chronic back problems since she was jailed in 2011, may run for president in elections now scheduled for May 25, and many of her supporters are eager to build a campaign. In a sign of her still formidable political influence, Tymoshenko spoke by telephone Sunday with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as well as with Stefan Fule, a top European Union official, and with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn, and Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill. Tymoshenko also met with ambassadors from the United States and EU countries.

Critics, including a small crowd of demonstrators gathered outside parliament, said Tymoshenko should bow out, making way for a new generation of leaders.

Tymoshenko, long Yanukovych’s political rival, was released Saturday from a prison hospital in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and quickly made her way here to Kiev, the capital, where she appeared briefly in a wheelchair in Independence Square. Tymoshenko was jailed by Yanukovych after losing the presidential election in 2010. Many in Ukraine and the West believe that her conviction was politically motivated.

Andriy Shevchenko, a member of parliament and the leader of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, said that she would ultimately decide what role she envisioned for herself, based on her health.

“It really depends on whether she wants to run our not,” Shevchenko said in an interview. “I think she has enough strength to be active in politics.”

In Kiev, Tymoshenko received an enthusiastic but not overly exuberant reception from the crowd in Independence Square. The response demonstrated her continued popularity and status as a symbol of opposition to Yanukovych but also underscored the apprehension that many Ukranians feel toward politicians deeply connected to a government with a long history of corruption and mismanagement.

Yanukovych, meanwhile, whose whereabouts remained unknown, appeared to be losing the support of even his former allies. On Sunday, Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which days ago enjoyed a majority in parliament, released a statement blaming him for the recent violence.

In the statement, the party said it strongly condemned what it called “criminal decrees,” which resulted in “human casualties, an empty treasury, huge debts and shame in the eyes of the Ukrainian people and the whole world.”

“All attempts to convince the president to act differently were ignored,” the statement said. “The party was virtually the hostage of one corrupt family.”

While parliament has dismissed a number of senior officials, the defense minister, Pavlo Lebedev told Ukraine’s Channel 24 that he intended to remain in his post, and the military issued statements that seemed to offer assurance that no steps would be taken to interfere with the provisional government.

It is not yet clear whether Ukrainians in the southern and eastern regions of the country, which host the bulk of the country’s industrial infrastructure as well as the heaviest concentration of pro-Russian sentiment, would resist the change of government in Kiev. In several cities, including Donetsk and Kharkiv, pro-Russian demonstrators took to the streets Sunday, and there have been scattered reports of clashes between pro-Russian Ukrainians and supporters of the protests in Kiev.