News / Europe

Runaway President: What Are Yanukovych's Options?

FILE -Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych takes part in a news conference in Kyiv, December 19, 2013.
FILE -Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych takes part in a news conference in Kyiv, December 19, 2013.
Ukrainian protesters have called for his death.

The country's interim leaders have issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of "mass murder." And now, lawmakers want to drag him before the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

But the main question remains: Where is Viktor Yanukovych?

Rumors about his whereabouts have been swirling since the ousted president fled Kyiv on the night of February 21-22 after apparently evading security forces by fleeing his luxurious estate outside the capital by helicopter.

  • People walk around Viktor Yanukovych's countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, outside Kyiv, Feb, 22, 2014.
  • People look through windows of the Mezhyhirya residence of Viktor Yanukovych in the village Novi Petrivtsi, Feb. 22, 2014.
  • A man gestures behind the interior bar of the Mezhyhirya residence of Viktor Yanukovich in the village Novi Petrivtsi, Feb. 22, 2014.
  • A man holds one of Viktor Yanukovych's golf clubs at the golf course on Yanukovych's countryside residence in Mezhyhirya, Feb, 22, 2014.
  • People walk on the grounds of the Mezhyhirya residence of Viktor Yanukovych in the village Novi Petrivtsi, Feb. 22, 2014.
  • People look through windows of the Mezhyhirya residence of Viktor Yanukovych as anti-government protesters and journalists walk on the grounds in the village Novi Petrivtsi, Feb. 22, 2014.
  • Anti-government protesters and journalists look at ostriches kept on the grounds of the Mezhyhirya residence of Viktor Yanukovych, Feb. 22, 2014.

Yanukovych reemerged the next day in a television interview from an undisclosed location -- initially reported to be in the northeastern city of Kharkiv -- maintaining that he was still the president and comparing the protesters who overthrew him to Nazis.

Since then, there have been no confirmed sightings.

Some say he sought refuge in a monastery outside the eastern city of Donetsk. Others believed he was smuggled into a Russian naval base in Sevastopol or escaped on a luxury yacht from the Black Sea port of Balaclava.

With his political allies turning away from him in droves, Yanukovych's options are quickly narrowing.

Safe havens?

There is speculation that he was granted refuge in Russia, whose leadership rejects the interim government born out of Ukraine's bloody three-month protests as illegitimate.

But Moscow's support of Yanukovych has been lukewarm at best, and many in Russia believe the Kremlin is unwilling to jeopardize its high-stakes relations with Ukraine by granting him asylum.

"Moscow will not, and in my opinion should not, act as a benefactor for Yanukovych and his family," says Maksim Shevchenko, a prominent Russian journalist and television presenter, who is seen as pro-Kremlin.

"He inspires hatred and contempt in all layers of Ukrainian society. Today, to openly support Yanukovych is to defy the Ukrainian people. In spite of Ukraine's political problems and of the fact that there are some political forces in Ukraine that are unacceptable for Moscow – the national socialists – I think Moscow wants to retain some levers of influence in Ukraine."

Another country touted as a possible safe haven for Yanukovych is Belarus, whose authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka gave refuge to deposed Kyrgyz President Kurmambek Bakiev in 2010.

Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitshchko reportedly cautioned Lukashenka in a telephone conversation against giving sanctuary to Yanukovych or anyone from his disgraced entourage.

The odds of Yanukovych turning up in Minsk, however, seem slim.

"Lukashenka wasn't on very good terms with Yanukovych," says Yury Drakakhrust, a political correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "As strange as it may seem, he had much friendlier relations with the first Maidan leader, [Viktor] Yushchenko. Belarus and Ukraine also have an important trade volume. As for the asylum he granted to Bakiev, it was an attempt to show some authority in Central Asia. But in this region, it's wise not to get in Russia's way. So by taking in Yanukovych, Lukashenka has nothing to win and much to lose."

Trail Goes Cold

Acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who has been leading the manhunt for Yanukovych, said the deposed president and his bodyguards had attempted to flee Ukraine from Donetsk.

"He tried to fly out,"Avakov wrote in a Facebook post. "The border service prevented their take-off."

According to Avakov, Yanukovych then drove to a state residence in Donetsk before heading to Crimea late on February 22.

The trail goes cold in Balaclava. This is where the ousted leader is said to have discharged the bulk of his security personnel before driving away in an unknown direction, escorted by a handful of loyal guards.

Ukraine's new leaders are determined to thwart his dash for freedom and bring him to justice for the deaths of more than 80 protesters.

The first step may be to ensure his safety.

Andriy Klyuyev, the former head of Yanukovych's administration and one of the men who fled Kyiv with him, was reportedly assaulted by a group of 20 unidentified assailants on February 24 on his way back to Kyiv.

Reports say Klyuyev has been hospitalized after sustaining a severe gunshot wound in the attack.

Yelena Rykovtseva from RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report from Moscow.

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