Ukrainian parliament chief assumes presidential powers amid fears of a split in the country

The Associated Press

Top Ukrainian opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko, center, U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt, left, and EU Ambassador to Ukraine Jan Tombinski during their meeting in Kiev, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. Long-jailed Tymoshenko assumed presidential powers Sunday, plunging Ukraine into new uncertainty after a deadly political standoff — and boosting her chances at a return to power.(AP Photo/Olexander Prokopenko, pool)

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The Kremlin has been largely silent about whether it still supports Yanukovych. Putin, who presided over the close of the Sochi Olympics, has not spoken about recent events in Kiev. He had developed a productive working relationship with Tymoshenko when she was Ukraine's prime minister.

Russian legislator Leonid Slutsky said Sunday that naming Tymoshenko prime minister "would be useful for stabilizing" tensions in Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies.

Russia's finance minister urged Ukraine to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund to avoid an imminent default.

Tensions mounted in Crimea, where pro-Russian politicians are organizing rallies and forming protest units and have been demanding autonomy from Kiev. Russia maintains a big naval base in Crimea that has tangled relations between the countries for two decades.

A crowd of pro-Russia demonstrators in the Crimean city of Kerch, following a rally Sunday at which speakers called for Crimea's secession, marched toward city hall chanting "Russia! Russia!" and tore down the Ukrainian flag. Marchers scuffled with the mayor and police officers who tried but failed to stop the crowd from hoisting a Russian flag in its place.

The political crisis in this nation of 46 million has changed with blinding speed repeatedly in the past week.

The parliament, in a special session Sunday, voted overwhelmingly to temporarily hand the president's powers to speaker Turchinov. He is one of Tymoshenko's most loyal allies, who stuck with her even as others deserted her in her roller coaster political career.

Tymoshenko is a divisive political survivor who drew criticism even as masses cheered her from the protest camp. Posters appeared Sunday equating her with Yanukovych, reading "people didn't die for this."

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko warned that getting the country under control won't be easy, and hinted at possible turmoil to come.

"If new government falls short of expectations, people can come out and sweep them out of office," he told journalists in parliament.

The legitimacy of the parliament's flurry of decisions in recent days is under question. The votes are based on a decision Friday to return to a 10-year-old constitution that grants parliament greater powers. Yanukovych has not signed that decision into law, and he said Saturday that the parliament is now acting illegally.

However, legal experts said that de facto the parliament is now in charge.

Presidential aide Hanna Herman told the AP on Sunday that Yanukovych was in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv as of Saturday night and plans to stay in power. Still, Herman sought to distance herself from Yanukovych.

So did members of his party, apparently seeking to save their political careers in a country suddenly in the hands of a pro-Western parliament.

Ukrainians' loyalties remain divided.

Protesters smashed portraits of Yanukovych and took down statues of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin in several towns and cities. On Sunday, some pro-Russian protesters took up positions to defend Lenin statues in Donetsk and Kharkiv. Statues of Lenin across the former U.S.S.R. are seen as a symbol of Moscow's rule.

The past week has seen the worst violence in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 — 82 dead according to the Health Ministry, more than 100 according to protesters.

Thousands of Ukrainians flocked to the Kiev protest camp known as the Maidan to pay their last respects to those killed, bearing flowers and lighting candles while Cossacks beat drums.

Nadezhda Kovalchuk, a 58-year-old food worker on the square, said they died "so that we would be free, for our freedom, so that we, our children and grandchildren would live well."

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Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jim Heintz in Kiev, Lynn Berry in Moscow, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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