In Ukraine turbulence, a lad from Lviv becomes the toast of Kiev
By Richard Balmforth
KIEV Tue Feb 25, 2014 11:38am GMT
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Anti-presidential protester Volodymyr Parasiuk addresses the crowd as opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko (L) looks on during a rally in Kiev February 21, 2014. When the history of the bloody turbulence in Ukraine is written, 26-year-old Parasiuk who learned combat skills in the army cadets may be recorded as the man who made up Viktor Yanukovich’s mind to cut and run. To match Insight UKRAINE-CRISIS/HERO Picture taken February 21, 2014.
Credit: Reuters/Vitaliy Nosach
// // // // KIEV (Reuters) – When the history of the bloody turbulence in Ukraine is written, a 26-year-old who learned combat skills in the army cadets may be recorded as the man who made up Viktor Yanukovich’s mind to cut and run.
Cars toot a welcome and passers-by press the hand of Volodymyr Parasiuk, a boyish-looking individual who finds it embarrassing to be called a hero.
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He reserves that title for his comrades and other protesters among the 80 or so people killed on the capital’s streets last week in three days of fighting against Yanukovich’s police.
But after opposition leaders had signed an EU-brokered deal with President Yanukovich to end the conflict, it was Parasiuk who commandeered the microphone on Friday night to turn the crowd against it.
With former boxing champion and opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko looking on stony-faced, Parasiuk, from the western city of Lviv, made an electrifying impromptu speech denouncing the opposition for “shaking hands with this killer”.
No-one was going to wait for an election later in the year, he said. Yanukovich had to get out of town by the following morning or face the consequences.
To the dismay of opposition leaders, Parasiuk’s emotional address – he broke down on several occasions as he remembered dead comrades – touched a chord deep within the thousands on Independence Square who roared their approval.
The opposition had failed to sell their achievements to the ‘Maidan’, the name for both the square and the protest movement.
An agreement, painstakingly negotiated with EU foreign ministers over a sleepless night, was effectively dead.
The writing was on the wall for Yanukovich.
He flew out of Kiev by helicopter that night, Ukraine’s acting interior minister said, and on Tuesday was on the run somewhere in Ukraine, being sought for “mass murder”.
“Opposition leaders said they had agreed that there would be early elections in December. This was the Ukrainian people’s last drop of patience,” Parasiuk told Reuters in an interview.
“Emotions were overflowing because we had lost a great number of people. Suddenly these politicians come and say ‘Yanukovich will stay as president and there will be elections.’ I have a clear position. Yanukovich is a terrorist, ‘Terrorist Number One’ for Ukraine,” Parasiuk said.
FLIGHT OF YANUKOVICH
That Friday night, Yanukovich set off on a zig-zag by helicopter and car across eastern and southern Ukraine, looking either for a safe haven or a flight out of the country.
Some believe he may have already decided he was going to flee even before the ‘Maidan’ gave thumbs-down to the agreement.
Ukraine’s opposition, buoyed by the direct intervention of three EU ministers from Germany, Poland and France, had signed an agreement that seemed to meet many of their demands.
It provided for early elections, a national unity government and return to a previous constitution that would take away from Yanukovich control over the appointment of the prime minister and make-up of the government, and return it to parliament.
Almost immediately, the parliament, where Yanukovich’s grip had been weakened by desertions by deputies from his Party of Regions, began voting many of these proposals into law.
Those who saw Yanukovich sign the deal saw an unsmiling figure unhappy about what he was giving away, and aware of the risk he ran in a rapidly-unfolding drama.
“It was as if he knew more about the dire straits he was in. He did not seem as invincible and aloof as he did before. He didn’t look scared but he did not look so sure,” said one witness to the signing.
Either way, when opposition leaders took the deal to the Maidan for definitive approval on Friday night, it blew up in their faces – thanks to Parasiuk’s emotional intervention.
Klitschko and other opposition leaders had already spoken of their achievements in putting a deal together.
But there was a mixed reception from the Maidan. Booing, whistling and cat-calls gave Parasiuk his cue.
As the crowds carried open coffins of victims to the stage where he and opposition leaders stood, Parasiuk, his voice breaking, jumped to the microphone.
“We ordinary people are saying this to the politicians who stand behind us: ‘No Yanukovich is going to be a president for a whole year’, he said to roars of support from the crowd.
“Our kinsmen have been shot and our leaders shake hands with this killer. This is shame. Tomorrow, by 10 o’clock, he has to be gone,” Parasiuk declared.
Yanukovich was, in fact, gone long before that, flying out of Kiev by helicopter that Friday night to the eastern city of Kharkiv, according to acting interior minister Arsen Avakov.
Diplomatic insiders say Yanukovich may already have had doubts about whether the agreement could hold. Benefiting from intelligence on the streets, he knew how the wind was blowing.
Two of the three main opposition leaders – former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and far-right nationalist Oleg Tyahnibok – left the stage quickly after Parasiuk’s speech.
Klitschko returned and apologized for shaking hands with Yanukovich.
ON THE RUN
Though ousted by the fledgling new parliament, Yanukovich, appearing in the town of Kharkiv on Saturday, issued a televised statement saying he was still president. But the new authorities on Monday said he was now wanted for “mass murder”.
Some reports have him hiding in a monastery in Donetsk, though Reuters reporters on Monday saw no sign of unusual activity there. He might be in Crimea. Given Russia‘s Black Sea fleet has a base in Sevastopol, he might even be on a Russian ship, some people theorise.
If Parasiuk had not made the intervention he did, someone else would have, one diplomat opined.
Looking back on that heady Friday night, Parasiuk, who headed a “self-defense” unit with a membership of between 40 and 130 fighters, defended his sharp criticism of Klitschko and the other opposition leaders.
“Everything that had been achieved had been by the people of the Maidan. But they had achieved nothing,” he said in an interview in a restaurant in downtown Kiev.
Parasiuk, a single man with a disarming smile whose girlfriend, Iryna, sat with him, said he had participated “actively” in clashes with police though he declined to say what weapons he had used.
He defended the power of the ‘Maidan’ with the passion of an 18th century French revolutionary.
Asked when Kiev’s barricades would come down, he replied: “If the Maidan disperses, politicians will stop being afraid. We are not going away. We will not allow a repeat of what happened in 2004,” he said.
He was referring to the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 which stopped Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency but produced governments that collapsed amid in-fighting and allowed him to come to power in 2010.
He spelled out a message that Ukraine’s emerging leadership may have to heed carefully as it strives to make a peaceful transition to a post-Yanukovich order.
The new authorities, he said, must understand that the Maidan is the real power, not the 450 parliamentary deputies.
“My declaration from the stage had one aim: to tell the opposition: ‘Understand this. That if you do not fulfill our conditions then things will be as we decide, not as you decide’.”
“We simply told them: ‘Lads, act decisively because if you don’t, we will’,” Parasiuk said.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Writing By Richard Balmforth; Editing by Giles Elgood)