KIEV – Big and burly with two convictions for assault, Viktor Yanukovych is hard to miss. But after a day of high drama and intrigue, the whereabouts of the ousted Ukrainian president were a mystery.
One report had him ejected from a charter flight at Donetsk airport in his native east. An aide said he had been in the northeastern city of Kharkiv all day, though he failed to appear at a meeting of regional governors. A taxi driver in Kiev swore he was in the United Arab Emirates.
The mystery did little to help loyalists who stuck to the line that their leader was still the president, even after parliament voted to remove him in the climax to three months of turmoil and several days of carnage over Ukraine’s allegiance to Europe or Russia.
“We have a legitimate, living president — we just don’t know where he is,” Oleh Tsaryov, a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, said grimly on Russian television.
The smart money was on Donetsk, an industrial region and political power base of the Russian-speaking leader. But even there, 63-year-old Yanukovych is unlikely to roam free for long. Protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square, mourning dozens of their number who were shot dead in two days of gunbattles last week, are calling for his head.
In an interview in what looked like a hotel room, a shell-shocked Yanukovych told Ukrainian television station UBR he had no intention of fleeing the country. Instead, he planned to tour the southeast, a region that includes the autonomous and majority ethnic Russian region of Crimea, home to Moscow’s Black Sea fleet.
Interfax news agency reported, however, that two armed men had tried to bribe border guards to let Yanukovych fly out of Donetsk on a private jet, but were refused. Where was he heading?
Russia would seem an obvious choice. In November, Yanukovych had done Moscow’s bidding in turning his back on a deal to deepen ties with the European Union, the spark for the revolt that eventually brought him down.
But Russia, uncomfortable with the example being set in its backyard, had hardly disguised its impatience with Yanukovych’s inability to extinguish the protests against him.
Yanukovych might find he will get a warmer welcome in neighboring Belarus, where veteran strongman Aleksander Lukashenko took in Kyrgyz leader Kurmanbek Bakiyev after his 2010 ouster.