Ukraine’s parliament voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to oust Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko in a move likely to hobble the country’s faltering reform program and escalate its political crisis.
The decision outraged thousands of Yushchenko supporters who swarmed through Kiev towards parliament in the biggest demonstration yet of months of political turmoil and protests against President Leonid Kuchma.
Kuchma, who has repeatedly criticized the government and failed to back his prime minister publicly, said this week the government’s breakup would not be in Ukraine’s best interests.
“Shame, shame. Kuchma out, Kuchma out,” the crowd roared outside parliament. Police estimated some 15,000 people had joined the protest. Inside, Yushchenko vowed to fight on.
“I am not leaving politics. I am leaving so I can return,” he said as his supporters yelled “Yushchenko, Yushchenko!”. It is unclear who might succeed Yushchenko. Deputies said the divisions in parliament meant only a complete unknown could be nominated to replace him.
The crowd cheered as Yushchenko emerged from parliament, flanked by his colleagues and wiping tears from his eyes.
“I said this government would be for the people and for all the citizens of Ukraine. Thank you to all those who supported me and my government for the past one and a half years,” he said.
A coffin daubed with the names of the parties which opposed Yushchenko was lain at the steps of parliament. Opposition deputies called for Kuchma’s impeachment.
Around 3,000 protesters marched to Kuchma’s residence nearby, confronted by lines of police. Armored riot police stood quietly by in adjoining streets.”The police are with the people, the filth are with Kuchma,” the crowd, carrying national flags, chanted.
The vote, sponsored by the Communist Party and backed by large sections of parliament, sealed Yushchenko’s fate although it was unclear whether the rest of the cabinet would be dismissed or retained in a caretaker capacity.
Kuchma has now to sign a decree relieving his cabinet chief of his post but it is unclear when that will take place.
Deputies voted in two stages to oust the premier. In the final stage, the 450-seat parliament voted 263 to 69 to dismiss Yushchenko, a former central banker appointed in December 1999. In a preliminary vote earlier in the day, deputies had voted 262 to 86 against the prime minister.