Ukraine's deposed leader speaks. Is anyone listening?

Former president Viktor Yanukovych spoke from exile in Russia about the perils facing Ukrainians living under a 'bandit regime', echoing Moscow's narrative but adding little to the debate.

Sergey Pivovarov/AP
Former president Viktor Yanukovych speaks to the media in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Tuesday March 11, 2014. Ukraine's deposed president seemed stumped for anything new to say.

Russia still considers him to be Ukraine’s legal head of state. And his whereabouts offer intriguing clues as to his exiled status. But when Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed Ukrainian president, held a press conference today in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, he seemed stumped for anything new to say.

"Behind the so-called government in Kiev are gangs of ultranationalists and extremists. The streets are being patrolled by masked gunmen. There is lawlessness," Mr. Yanukovych warned. "Dark forces" are at work, he added, "and they want a civil war to break out.”

He delivered his statement at the same podium where he first spoke after fleeing Ukraine late last month, and refused to take any questions.

For Russia-watchers, the question is why his hosts, who are locked into a bitter diplomatic standoff with Western powers over Ukraine's future, allowed him to speak. The Kremlim has made little secret of its exasperation with a bungler who allowed himself to be driven out of Kiev by a few thousand persistent street demonstrators. Even President Vladimir Putin has conceded that Yanukovych's claim to the Ukrainian presidency is "purely legal."

One reason may be that everything the ousted Ukrainian leader says echoes the Russian narrative about Ukraine. For example, Yanukovych said upcoming May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine will be "absolutely illegitimate," since they were called by a "junta" and extremists have created an atmosphere of terror. 

And he warned that economic collapse looms in Ukraine. "They'll try to blame me. . .  [But] my government had a clear plan for maintaining Ukrainian living standards," which has been swept aside as the new authorities accept financial aid from Western countries that is contingent on carrying out painful economic reforms, he said.

"Yanukovych is totally dependent on the Russian authorities, so he's probably not even free to speak for himself," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "This probably shouldn't even be as a statement of Yanukovych, but just a Kremlin press release that he read out on TV."

Yanukovych stuck closely to Moscow's line on Crimea, a Russian-majority province of Ukraine which is holding a controversial referendum on joining Russia next Sunday. Addressing the "bandit regime" in Kiev, he said "because of your actions Crimea is going to secede, and people in the east are demanding respect for their rights even at gunpoint."

Mr. Strokan says the Kremlin may be overestimating Yanukovych's usefulness and underestimating how unpopular he is at home. "His enemies hate him as a Russian tool, the majority of citizens have been appalled by the revelations about his corruption and his base behavior in fleeing to Russia, while even his former diehard supporters blame him for betraying them. The Kremlin can roll him out to speak as often as it like, but there is no one listening."

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