KYIV, Ukraine — Post-revolutionary Ukraine may have finally appointed a new government on Thursday, but that was the easy part.
After President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight last weekend, the country is facing threats of separatism, a failing economy and increasing demands from protesters for transparency in a system that was built for the opposite.
It’s no accident that newly appointed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has called this government a collection of “political suiciders,” and analysts say there’s no time to lose.
“At this point, it’s very difficult to sort out just one or two priorities,” says Serhiy Solodkyy, a Kyiv-based political expert. “The priority is on everything.”
Parliament on Thursday voted 331-1 in favor of an interim cabinet, which was presented to protesters on Independence Square, or the Maidan, for approval Wednesday night, reflecting that the revolution was driven from the streets.
But recent events in Crimea — an autonomous, pro-Russian peninsula on the Black Sea — and the threat of military intervention by Moscow are overshadowing any sense of progress and highlight the uphill battle the new authorities face.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, masked gunmen stormed the region’s parliament and government headquarters — which has seen dueling protests in recent days both for and against the new Kyiv authorities — and raised a Russian tri-color flag.
Police in the Crimean capital Simferopol sealed off access to parliament and government buildings occupied by people who appeared to be ethnic Russians. The regional parliament has called an emergency session for Friday.
That came less than a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military drills near his country’s border with Ukraine that have raised alarm bells in the West.
Russia, along with the US, UK and France, pledged to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine in a memorandum signed in 1994.
Although Russian officials have insisted Russia will not intervene in Ukraine, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted as saying his country would defend its compatriots in Ukraine “uncompromisingly.”
Moscow’s moves have stirred fears among officials and ordinary Ukrainians that the Kremlin, which has long been determined to wrest Kyiv back into its orbit, is fanning the flames of the pro-Russian separatism that has long simmered in Crimea.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov warned the Russian military not to leave the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which Moscow rents to house its navy’s Black Sea Fleet.
“Any movement of military servicemen with weapons outside this territory will be viewed as military aggression,” he said.
In Poland, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski — who was central to brokering an agreement last week to end the violence between the Yanukovych administration and protesters — called the events in Crimea a “very dangerous game.”
"I warn those who have done this, and those who have facilitated it, that regional conflicts begin this way," he was reported as saying.
Yanukovych, whose whereabouts are still unknown since he disappeared from Crimea earlier this week, released a statement Thursday saying that he remained the lawful president and appealed to Russia to protect “my personal safety.” Russian media reported that he would hold a news conference on Friday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
Yanukovych warned that Ukraine’s largely pro-Moscow regions in the east and south would “not accept the anarchy and outright lawlessness” in the country.
Ethnic Russians make up the majority in Crimea, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
Ethnic Ukrainians loyal to Kyiv and local Muslim Tatars, whom Josef Stalin deported during World War II, have joined to oppose the pro-Russia protesters.
In Kyiv on Wednesday, Ihor Zhdanov, a political scientist and protest organizer, told a worried crowd outside parliament that the government’s consolidation was a top priority for preventing chaos in Crimea, especially in Sevastopol, where many Russians live.
“As far as I understand, we don’t control the Interior Ministry there and we don’t control part of the security service,” he said. “But we need to first get the government in order because we cannot have a power vacuum.”
The Kremlin is refusing to recognize the post-Yanukovych authorities. On Thursday, Russian media reported a top official claiming Moscow had granted protection for Yanukovych, who was rumored to be in the Russian capital.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy — robbed blind by Yanukovych and his inner circle, critics say — is veering headlong toward default. The authorities say it needs some $35 billion in aid over the next two years.
That money will have to come from Western donors, since Moscow is unlikely to make good on the $15 billion credit it promised Yanukovych late last year in return for his snubbing a deal for closer ties with the European Union.
After a weeks-long nosedive, the national currency, the hryvnia, has hit an all-time low against the dollar.
Yatsenyunk, the new prime minister and an experienced banker, minced few words describing Ukraine’s dismal financial status, admitting the government will have to take “extremely unpopular steps.”
“We are on the brink of disaster,” he told the BBC on Wednesday.
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The new government is a mix of old political hands and civic activists whose popularity has skyrocketed thanks to their part in the months-long protest movement.
Among the fresh faces are a well-known investigative reporter who was beaten during the protests and will head a national “anti-corruption bureau,” the president of Ukraine’s most renowned university who will be education minister, and a parliamentarian who heads the revolution’s self-defense forces and was appointed chief of the national security council.
But while protesters appeared pleased with some of the picks during Wednesday night’s consultations, they cried foul over what they say are too many known political entities who’ve served in previous discredited governments.
“I like the fact that they included protesters in the process, but I don’t like that we’re still seeing some of the old ‘trusted faces’ that Maidan doesn’t want to see,” said Galina Rybak, 44.
The name of the new interior minister — a leading member of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party — elicited jeers from demonstrators upset that neither Yanukovych nor anyone else responsible for last week’s deadly crackdown has been punished.
Interim President Turchynov, a Tymoshenko confidante, was booed when he delivered his speech.
That reflects the pressure from all sides that’s piling on the formal opposition leaders here, whose authority has been steadily eclipsed since the uprising began by popular demands and the handful of civic activists who’ve earned widespread respect from protesters.
Solodkyy says the Maidan “intuitively feels that it needs to change the entire system.”
“For them, it’s not enough to get rid of Tymoshenko or Yanukovych,” he says. “They’re afraid that Yatsenyuk or Klitschko will turn into another Yanukovych.”