Ukrainian Opposition Leader Freed Amid Turmoil

Events are moving rapidly in Ukraine Saturday. NPR's Arun Rath checks in with reporter Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson, who saw the opposition leader speak to the crowd in Kiev.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson is in Kiev. Hello.

SORAYA SARHADDI-NELSON, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?

RATH: I'm doing OK. Events there seem to be moving pretty rapidly today. Can you tell us how the president left power and what followed in parliament?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Basically, he left. He disappeared. He was gone this morning, and people didn't know where he was. And so the parliament has started to decide that they were going to, I guess, oust him, you know? They announced that they were going to be making a statement - that the new speaker of the parliament would be making a statement. That didn't come for several hours.

Yanukovych did a TV interview in eastern Ukraine and announced that this was a coup d'etat or amounted to a coup d'etat, that he had no intention of resigning. But then what the parliament did is, well, they decided that he had in effect resigned anyway by leaving, and they voted to oust him.

RATH: Soraya, you've just been in Kiev's Independence Square. What's been happening there?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, the key moment tonight was when former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko showed up. I mean, this is a woman who'd been in prison. And she is a former prime minister who is an archenemy of Yanukovych. And that was, I think, the symbol that really made them feel like they had won.

RATH: This former prime minister, though, she still has those charters of corruption that maybe have tainted her. Is she seen by some as part of the problem?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, certainly, that's how many people felt as I was talking to them this week. I mean, there's a big poster of her in the square. She has this very distinguished braid - blonde braid that she wears across the top of her head. She was also in a wheelchair tonight. So she does cut a very sympathetic figure. But people were sort of joking, well, you know, we've been dealing with the Yanukovych regime, and in 10 years, we'll be dealing with her regime basically, you know?

I mean, they don't trust her necessarily. And she did ask for their forgiveness when she took to the stage tonight. She also urged them to stay there until an honest government could take power here in Ukraine.

RATH: From a distance, though, it looks almost like the country's kind of headless. Who is in power at the moment?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, the parliament and certainly some of the opposition leaders that we know more about, like Vitali Klitschko, former boxing champion who's a main opposition leader here, and others were just encouraging lawmakers to stay in parliament, because there were an awful lot of resignations today by people who were allied with Yanukovych, the former president. And so they're like, you must stay. We have to keep this thing going.

And so they feel they're in charge. But certainly, protesters also feel very empowered at this point. And it's important to remember that not everyone in the square is united. I mean, what started this all was because Yanukovych had decided that he didn't want to have a (unintelligible) far-reaching treaty with the EU. Certainly, a lot of people in Ukraine, especially in the western part of the country, feel more aligned with Europe.

And so - but there are also many people in the square - ultranationalists and others - who don't necessarily want to see that. And so there's some discussion about, you know, who - whether they were going to give up the power that they feel they've now earned. And then, of course, you have self-defense forces here from the square. I mean, these are protesters who've sort of taken the duties upon themselves to provide protection because police have disappeared from the streets. And we still have to hear from security forces and the army where they stand on all this.

RATH: Soraya, thank you.

SARHADDI-NELSON: You're welcome.

RATH: That was NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson speaking with us from Kiev.

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