In Ukraine, abandoned presidential mansion is powerful symbol for protesters

In a tumultuous series of moves, parliament impeached a defiant President Yanukovych, called for May presidential elections, and freed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.The public also got a look at a lavish retreat built by Yanukovych.

Protesters opened President Yanukovych's country home in Mezhyirya, Ukraine, to Ukrainians Saturday. Ukrainian security and volunteers from Independence Square joined forces to protect the retreat from vandalism and looting. “My father and I both looked at this place and thought, ‘this was build with blood money, our blood,’ ” said one visitor. Andrew Lubimov/AP

Ukraine’s parliament voted to impeach President Viktor Yanukovych on Saturday, just minutes after the embattled president said he would not resign under pressure of “banditry” and a "coup." 

The impeachment was a significant turn of events in Ukraine’s now three-month long stand off between antigovernment protesters and Mr. Yanukovych, who is believed to have fled to Kharkiv, his political base in the east. It came on the heels of other key moves that, one by one, diminished the president’s power and political support and raised fears of a possible split between Europe-leaning western Ukraine and the more Russia-friendly east.

Amid a tumultuous Saturday that saw protesters claim control of Kiev, the parliament called presidential elections for May and voted to free Yanukovych’s political archrival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has been in jail for nearly three years. The parliament also appointed replacements for the many government positions, such as the interior minister and parliament speaker, something that may appease demonstrators who said they wanted no deals with anyone associated with a government they have branded as "killers" after this week's violence. 

It remains to be seen if the impeachment will satisfy the thousands of protesters on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, who hold Yanukovych responsible for the deaths of more than 70 people killed during the worst violence this post-Soviet country has seen in its modern history. 

“Impeachment is very good, but it is not enough. He must be held responsible for all his crimes and return to jail,” said Vasiliy Maidansky, a student from Lviv. “The next step is very important – a total reload of the entire system of power, starting first with the courts.”

But Yanukovych seemed to indicate he was not ready to see his government fold. He said he had fled Kiev because he feared for his life, but added, in a defiant televised speech, "I’m not going to leave the country. I’m not going to resign. I’m the legitimately elected president "

Nonetheless, Ukrainians in Kiev woke Saturday to an announcement that Maidan’s “self-defense” teams had taken “control” of the government buildings in the city center. Men wearing ice hockey helmets and body armor, and wielding baseball bats and homemade shields, were stationed in front of the presidential offices, the parliament and several other government buildings.

They took up their positions early in the morning as the government police troops retreated unexpectedly late Friday night, after an agreement signed by opposition leaders and Yanukovych set a peaceful resolution in motion. Key to that agreement was a return to a parliamentary republic, taking powers away from the president, including his ability to appoint and control the interior ministry and its security troops.

The city streets were eerily quiet and nearly empty of traffic Saturday morning, except when groups of 20 to 30 self-defense teams march down the street. Medical volunteers were standing on street corners in scrubs marked with red crosses, anticipating another day of violence after 72 hours in which hundreds have been seriously injured in violent clashes.

“Until Yanukovych is dealt with, we have no other options but to take control,” said Bohdan Chaika, an engineer from Drohobich in western Ukraine, who was in a self-defense team in front of the presidential offices. Mr. Chaika said he had been on Maidan for two months, and was prepared to fight for Ukraine’s future.

Later on Saturday, the newly appointed interior minster, Arsen Avakov, said the country’s security forces were with the Ukrainian people.

An abandoned presidential mansion

Perhaps the biggest sign that Yanukovych’s presidency was nearing an end came in the images of thousands of Ukrainians flocking to walk the grounds of his 340-acre mansion on the outskirts of Kiev.

Guards, who said it had been abandoned, opened the gates of the complex, which sits on a hill overlooking the Dnieper River.

Hearing that police had left their positions in front of the gates, Maidan’s self-defense commanders said they took control of the premises. Hundreds of cars lined the street leading to the house, as many visitors parked a few miles away and walked the distance to see, they said, how their president had used the money he had stolen from them.

Inside the complex, which included indoor tennis courts, a sprawling lawn, an adjacent golf course, and several guesthouses and saunas, visitors roamed the grounds, snapping souvenir photos. The self-defense teams stood guard of the entranceways of the main buildings to prevent looting, they said.

“The fact that he abandoned this place is a strong symbolic meaning,” says Alexey Lushchenko, a political analyst at the Gorshinen Institute in Kiev. “I’m surprised that it hasn’t been burned down yet, to be honest.”

Despite the anger that many visitors expressed at the opulence of the complex, the mood was surprisingly calm. A sense of victory hung in the air. The mansion has been the source of contention for many Ukrainians, who claim Yanukovych stole from government coffers to build the estimated $100 million retreat.

“We should bring those that supported him to see this mansion, to see how their president spent their money,” said Ekaterina Hrebeniuk, a student from Kiev. “My father and I both looked at this place and thought, ‘this was build with blood money, our blood.’”

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