In a swift move, the Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders on Wednesday disbanded the country’s feared riot police, as they sought to win confidence from the splintered and economically ravaged nation in their efforts to forge a unity government.
The interim authorities are grappling the with the dual threats of separatism and a looming debt default as they try to piece the ex-Soviet nation back together following the weekend ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Protests that started in November over Yanukovych’s decision to ditch an historic EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with old master Russia culminated in a week of Kiev carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.
Yanukovych and his tight clique of security chiefs and administration insiders are widely believed to have since gone into hiding in the Russian-speaking southern peninsula of Crimea that is now threatening to secede from Ukraine.
The interim leaders’ headaches are compounded by Moscow’s decision to freeze payments on a massive bailout package that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to Yanukovych as his reward for rejecting closer EU ties.
The Ukrainian government faces foreign debt payments of $13 billion this year and has less than $18 billion in its fast depleting coffers, a grim equation that has forced it to seek as much as $35 billion from Western states.
Both the United States and Britain have publically backed the idea of putting together an economic rescue for Ukraine that would be overseen by the International Monetary Fund.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary William Hague also rejected Russia’s claim on Tuesday that Ukraine was being forced to make a historic choice between the East and West.
“This is not a zero-sum game, it is not a West versus East,” said Kerry after hosting Hague in Washington.
But EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wrapped up a two-day visit to Kiev on Tuesday by mentioning only a “short term” economic solution for Ukraine while saying nothing about extending the billions of dollars in credit requested by interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov.
Little appears to unite the vast nation of 46 million, splintered between the Ukranian-speaking west where pro-European sentiment runs high and a heavily Russified southeast, more than a shared adversion for the Berkut riot police.
The elite units carried shields and Kalashnikov rifles as they cracked down on protesters in Kiev and brutally beat those detained, forcing one man to strip naked in the freezing cold and parade in front of a police camera in one incident that became infamous through the Internet.
But acting interior minister Arsen Avakov announced on his Facebook account that he was dissolving the feared unit effective immediately.
“The Berkut is no more,” the 50-year-old wrote.
Avakov promised to disclose further details on Wednesday and said nothing about how he would deal with a possible insurrection from one of the country’s best-armed and trained forces, a 5,000-strong contingent with deployments in every corner of Ukraine.
Turchynov and his interim team have been branded by Russia as the leaders of an “armed mutiny” who deserve no recognition as they try to forge a new unity government by a deadline that has now been pushed back to Thursday.
But the interim authorities are winning backing from Western powers even as questions linger about the constitutional legitimacy of parliament’s decision to oust Yanukovych and free opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko from her seven-year prison sentence.
Hague stressed after the talks with Kerry that “this is a country that needs financial assistance from many sources, including from Russia.”
Kerry said Washington wanted to work with Moscow “and with everybody available, to make sure that this is peaceful from this day forward.”
Hague is expected in Ukraine shortly while US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived on Tuesday for a meeting with Turchynov expected to be held later on Wednesday.
The line of Western dignitaries now treading their way to Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s decision to withdraw its Kiev ambassador in a sign of displeasure with the meteoric pace of change in the neighbouring nation that Putin still views as a part of Russia’s domain.
Fears of pro-Russian regions breaking off from Kiev rule forced Turchynov on Tuesday to abruptly walk out of an emergency session of parliament in order to consult his security chiefs.
Top among the concerns are fears of mob violence in Crimea. Crowds have already ousted the mayor of the port city of Sevastopol, home to the Kremlin’s navies for the past 250 years, and appointed a Russian citizen in his place.
More pro-Russian protests are scheduled in the region on Wednesday.
The government’s formation in Kiev is expected to wrap up on Thursday with the announcement of a new prime minister.
Both Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion turned opposition leader, have declared themselves out of the running.
Klitschko announced on Tuesday that he would contest Ukraine’s May 25 snap presidential election, a poll that may also feature Tymoshenko.