ROSTOV-ON-DON, RUSSIA – In his first interview since fleeing to Russia, Ukraine’s ousted president said Wednesday that he was “wrong” to have invited Russian troops into Crimea and vowed to try to persuade Russia to return the coveted Black Sea peninsula.
Defensive and at times teary-eyed, Viktor Yanukovych told The Associated Press and Russia’s state NTV television that he still hopes to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to get the annexed region back.
“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” the 63-year-old Yanukovych said, insisting that Russia’s takeover of Crimea wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in power. He fled Ukraine in February after three months of protests focused on corruption and on his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead of the European Union.
Yanukovych denied the allegations of corruption, saying he built his palatial residence outside of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with his own money. He also denied responsibility for the sniper deaths of about 80 protesters in Kiev in February, for which he has been charged by Ukraine’s interim government.
As the world has watched the tumultuous events in Ukraine, Yanukovych has been a bit of a ghost even as he has insisted he is still the country’s true leader. While Putin has been openly dismissive of Yanukovych, he has also described Yanukovych as Ukraine’s legitimate leader and his ouster as illegal.
Yanukovych’s statement about Crimea appeared to represent an attempt to shore up at least some support in his homeland, where even his supporters have deserted him.
Russia annexed Crimea last month following a hastily called referendum held two weeks after Russian troops took control of the region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote and the annexation as illegal.
While Russia can hardly be expected to roll back its annexation, Yanukovych’s statement could widen Putin’s options in the talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis by creating an impression that Moscow could be open for discussions on Crimea’s status in the future.
Yanukovych has now lost the Ukrainian presidency twice in the past decade. In 2004, his presidential win was thrown out after the Orange Revolution protests caused the fraudulent election to be annulled.
Yanukovych said he has spoken with Putin twice by phone and once in person since he arrived in Russia, describing their talks as “difficult,” and hopes to have more meetings with him to negotiate Crimea’s return to Ukraine.
“We must search for ways . . . so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible . . . but be part of Ukraine,” he said.
Yanukovych said the Crimean referendum in March — a vote in which residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia — was a response to threats posed by radical nationalists.
Putin said last month that Yanukovych had asked Russia to send its troops to Ukraine to protect its people — a request seen as treason by many Ukrainians. Asked about the move, Yanukovych said he had made a mistake.
“I was wrong,” he said. “I acted on my emotions.”
Russian troops quickly overran Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, taking over government and military facilities on the pretext of protecting Russians.
Yanukovych did not answer several questions about whether he would support Russia — which has deployed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border — moving into Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians, the justification Putin used to take Crimea.
Yanukovych echoed the key Kremlin demand for settling the Ukrainian crisis, pushing for a referendum that could turn Ukraine into a loosely knit federation. He said such a referendum should be followed by constitutional reform, and only after that should Ukraine have a national election.
The interim government in Kiev that took power after him has scheduled a presidential election for May 25.
Yanukovych, who was born in the Donetsk coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine, worked at a metal plant before becoming an industrial manager and rising through the ranks to become a local governor and then prime minister. His critics note his criminal record and say he lacks a proper education to qualify for the country’s top job.
After he left the country, crowds of Ukrainians flocked to view his opulent country residence outside of Kiev and were shocked by the extravagant display of wealth amid the country’s financial ruin.
On Wednesday, Yanukovych denied any corruption surrounding the estate. He spoke with pride and affection about his collection of dozens of classic cars, saying he had bought them over years. He also said he hadn’t seen or used the golden loaf of bread found in his residence that attracted much attention and sarcasm.
He also insisted that he gave no advantages or special privileges to his dentist-turned-billionaire son, Oleksandr, who is said to have amassed a vast fortune during his father’s rule and angered other tycoons by taking over some of the country’s most profitable assets.
Yanukovych insisted he was reluctant to use force against the protesters who paralyzed Kiev for months, saying he was criticized by his entourage for taking too soft an attitude. He firmly denied that he gave the orders to shoot demonstrators in downtown Kiev in February.
The new government has slapped Yanukovych with criminal charges in connection with those deaths.
He said he hopes to return to Ukraine someday, but didn’t offer any details on how he could reclaim power.
Yanukovych said he was ready to sacrifice his life as the protests escalated against him, but realized that doing so would simply be a gift to the “neo-fascists” who he said seized power by force. He claimed they machine-gunned his convoy as he was leaving the Ukrainian capital.
“I didn’t want to give them my life just for nothing,” he said.