You have rid us of a cancer – freed Tymoshenko tells huge crowd

Published in The Mail on Sunday (23rd February, 2014)

Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was greeted by thousands of opposition supporters last night as she made a passionate speech in Kiev’s Independence Square hours after being freed from imprisonment.

Dressed in black and speaking from a wheelchair, she paid tribute to the crowd of 50,000 that assembled at the scene of the violent  protests that have shaken Europe –  hailing them as heroes who have liberated a nation and rid it of ‘cancer’.

Just hours earlier, the country’s president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in a dramatic coup – igniting fears that Ukraine could spiral into civil war.

‘You have changed your country,’  said Tymoshenko, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘Not the politicians, not the diplomats, not the world – only you.’

There was largely silence as the crowd listened to her words. Despite the cold night, people crammed on top of trucks and watched from the hill above the square where just two days beforehand scores of protesters were shot by snipers.

Although there are still fears that the troubled country could be plunged into bloody civil war, she said the dead had fallen to rid the country of dictatorship and ensure democracy. ‘This nation will never be subdued, it will never bow to anyone, because you would not allow it,’ Tymoshenko told the crowd. ‘Your strength, your force is indefatigable.’

Tymoshenko, the heroine of the Orange Revolution a decade ago, was jailed in 2011 by Yanukovych for alleged abuse of power while still prime minister. She was released in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrived in Kiev last night, where she delivered her emotional speech, clearly designed to place herself on the side of the streets.

However some opposition supporters see her as just another member of the hated political elite. Tymoshenko apologised for the actions of politicians and pledged the protesters could stay in the square until they had achieved all their goals. She constantly praised the bravery of ‘the boys’ who died for democracy.

‘You are the heroes,’ she said. ‘Heroes do not die. You have removed the cancer from this country – and for that it was important for you to stand at the barricades and face the bullets of snipers.

‘This nation will never bow to anyone – you would not allow it. A new era has begun today, an era of free people, a free country, a European country.’

She vowed that Ukraine would join the EU ‘in the near future’, and her  release was welcomed by the European Commission president Jose Manuel Barosso.

Many in the crowds were emotional at seeing Tymoshenko, although the response was muted in comparison with the man who followed her, a former interior minister who spent much of the past three months out on the barricades.

One couple beside me summed up the mixed feelings. Irina, the wife, said how happy she was to see the return of the only leader she thought could unite a divided nation, while her husband Skander dismissed Tymoshenko as just another ‘useless’ politician.

Tymoshenko’s speech came among growing fears that the country of 45 million people is heading to civil war, with the mainly Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine remaining loyal to Yanukovych and challenging the legitimacy of the national parliament.

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Kiev-based Penta think-tank, said: ‘If Yanukovych proclaims an alternative power in Kharkiv or in Donetsk, it will mean we have two countries. The most serious risk is the possible division of the country. The crisis isn’t over.’

Yanukovych briefly appeared on TV, branding the events as a ‘coup’ and refusing to step down. He  likened his opponents to Nazis.

According to reports, he attempted to flee to Russia by private plane – but was stopped by border guards at an airport in the eastern city of Donetsk, despite his aides’ attempts to bribe them. Opposition protesters accused him of trying to smuggle looted treasures and wealth out  of the country before he could be brought to trial for corruption and authorising the shooting of unarmed protesters.

Tynoshenko had been detained under armed guard in the hospital where she had been undergoing treatment for back problems, until a vote by parliament on Friday demanded her release.

Her speech, with her daughter Yevgenia standing at her side, was the latest twist in a day of astonishing drama that saw Ukraine’s parliament vote to oust the president, naming May 25 as the day for new elections.

People took their revenge on their reviled leader by storming his  prized palace of Mezhyhirya. I joined them as they arrived in their thousands to marvel at his £65 million residence, with its private zoo and manicured 340-acre grounds – more than half the size of Monaco – hidden away in a village outside Kiev.

The front doors alone, protected by baton-holding militia to prevent the building’s destruction, reputedly cost £40,000 each, made of imported Lebanese cedar and demonstrating the president’s contempt for his struggling country.

‘I am thrilled to be here,’ said Marta Halabala, a 27-year-old lawyer as she took pictures with her friends. ‘This place was like a  legend to us and we can’t believe it really exists. Now this is the symbol of our revolution. It looks so lovely but this is our money, blood money taken from us all – from me, my parents, their pensions. This place shows why our country is so poor.’

As news emerged the palace had been abandoned by Yanukovych’s guards, a trickle of journalists and protesters turned into a flood of fascinated Ukrainians. Militias marched in military fatigues and crash helmets, alongside couples, families with young children, women walking dogs and pensioners.

Ashes of burned, shredded papers were scattered on the ground and documents dumped in water were evidence of the owner’s desire to disappear and cover up his deeds. It was claimed opposition leaders have found secret documents, including a blacklist of journalists.

The mood was one of curiosity. ‘I wanted to see this with my own eyes – it is so big he needed a vehicle to cross his own garden,’ said Oleg Zhuk, 30, a protester from Lviv.

The huge wooden dacha, overlooking the Dnipro river, mysteriously passed into Yanukovych’s ownership in 2009. One report said it was swapped for two semi-derelict buildings in Kiev, with no money given to the state. An investigative journalist discovered the overall bill for fittings imported for the palace was £5.6 million in just one year. Wood panelling for staircases alone came to £120,000.

As people wandered Mezhyhirya’s grounds they posed for pictures by the freshly planted birch woods, gazebos, golf course, sauna and tennis courts. In one corner were Grecian-looking ruins, including columns and a horse head. The same sentiments were heard again and again. ‘Look at all this luxury – all our taxes were stolen here,’ said Sergei, 33, touring the palace with his wife and daughter.

Pink and white carnations could still be seen inside the house. Outside, the peacocks and ostriches remained in his private zoo, a fleet of luxury cars was parked in the garage and a small hovercraft found in his boatshed.

One early visitor was Mykhailo Havrylenko, one of the leaders of the Right Sector militia that played a prominent role in the protests. ‘I can’t believe how greedy they were,’ he said, surrounded by supporters in Cossack hats. ‘They were too greedy, these fat cats.’

Others commented on the president’s taste. In one corner beside the golf course were three kitsch nude statues of women in classical poses, a gazebo with a gilt chandelier hanging inside and a family of three bronze deer. Near the main house, built on the site of a former 14th Century monastery, a white marble horse was tethered. ‘This is just repulsive. Not only is there no taste but it is a show of greed that shows how ridiculous and irrelevant we were to him,’ said Igor, 26, a student from Odessa.

The lawns were immaculate, and anyone treading on them was told off by Ukrainians, who seemed to want this temple to corruption preserved in some form.

Yet while the capture of the palace proves power has slipped from Yanukovych, Ukraine’s future remains uncertain. Russia is unhappy at the latest developments, while Europe has welcomed them. Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged Britain’s support for the new administration, and agreed with the Germans to push for an international financial package to aid Ukraine’s economic woes.

Protests first erupted in late November when Yanukovych rejected a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. The Kremlin claimed the protesters were terrorists and coup plotters, and denounced the West for supporting them and encouraged Yanukovych to crush them.

In recent days, I watched Kiev, one of Europe’s great cities, erupt into a blazing and blood-stained battleground, the country teetering on the brink of break-up and civil war.

Thousands of protesters were still behind rings of barricades in Independence Square last night – distrustful of politicians and dismayed by opposition leaders backing a peace agreement hammered out by European foreign ministers. ‘Everyone knows that if you do not put out a fire properly it will start again,’ said one man in helmet, armoured vest and baseball bat.

Funerals were held for some of the dead, who ranged from a boy of 17 to a man in his 70s. Many were picked out by snipers with precision shots to head, heart or stomach.
‘These are the spots you aim at if you want your victim to die – there’s only a five per cent chance they live,’ said one officer involved in anti-protest operations. ‘This is the signature of military snipers, trained for combat zones.’ The officer revealed the aim  was to provoke protesters, and alleged that Russian security  advisers were involved alongside Ukrainian intelligence forces.

Ken Stewart, a teacher from Edinburgh now living in Kiev, was in the square when the worst shooting started on Thursday. ‘I saw a young man standing a few yards from me crumple and fall to the ground, hit in the chest by a sniper. I took cover with a small group of men behind a kiosk. Then when the firing stopped, I saw all the corpses. It felt horrifically unreal in the heart of the city with snipers killing outside McDonald’s and friends dealing with people with severed arms and worse.’

Later that day I met Oleh, 53, who broke down in tears as he told of searching for his best friend, missing for three days. ‘His son said he was shot in the leg, but we have not seen him since and I know they are taking people from hospitals.’ This was confirmed by staff at a major hospital, who said two injured patients had been kidnapped by police and beaten. Volunteers now patrol the floors.

People streamed in to offer supplies for the front line, volunteers sorting them beside hastily written signs. I saw an old woman donate a bin liner filled with fur coats, family saloons filled with tyres; drivers even siphoned petrol from their cars for Molotov cocktails.

So why were all these people, many middle-aged and middle-class, willing to chance their lives against crack troops? The simple answer is a struggle between east and west. This is a new nation, just 22 years old, with a history of divisive occupation. One third speak Russian (including Yanukovych) while two-thirds speak Ukrainian and feel closer to Europe.

Many young, growing up in the post-Soviet age, are frustrated by economic stagnation and see their future with the West. Huge numbers have emigrated – nearly seven million in two decades, leaving an ageing population of just 45 million.

Protests began last year with students on the streets after their gangster president spurned a trade deal with Europe in return for Russian financial inducements descended into sickening murder and mayhem. Yet the uprising is also about abuse, bribery, corruption and  dignity, just as I saw in the Arab Spring revolts.

‘People are fed up and feeling  desperate,’ said Liliya Skotarenko, 34, a Ukrainian-born public health worker from Brixton, visiting for half-term with her family.

Talking to protesters, the same issues came up repeatedly. The student complaining of having to pay teachers for better grades, the mother having to pay doctors to ensure decent treatment for her children, the businessman crushed by politically connected rivals.

Despite the return of hope for the future, titushki – gangs of thugs hired by officials – still cruised Kiev’s suburbs. In hospital, I met Vitaly Samoylenko, a 37-year-old plumber shot three times after rushing to join the revolt. ‘It is just a bit of physical pain and it was worth it,’ he said stoically.

Only time will really tell if that  is true.

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