Ukraine’s former Moscow-backed president has accused pro-European Union protesters who forced his ouster of provoking the 31-month pro-Russian revolt in the southeast that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
Viktor Yanukovych is a witness in the trial of five Ukrainian Berkut anti-riot police who are accused of opening fire at mostly unarmed people during the February 2014 revolution that turned the former Soviet republic toward the West.
The former president himself stands accused of treason in Ukraine.
However, Yanukovych escaped to Russia after the bloodbath that killed more than 100 people and cannot be prosecuted by the Kiev courts.
Yesterday’s hearings in Kiev were being held by video conference in which Yanukovych gave testimony in the southern Russian city of Rostov.
He has passionately denied ordering the now-disbanded Berkut anti-riot police force to open fire on the protesters during three days of violence in the heart of Kiev that also killed around a dozen officers.
Yanukovych began his testimony yesterday by accusing “the radicals of seizing power” and then “preparing to force their will on the people of the south and east who disagreed with what was happening in Kiev”.
The industrial region is predominantly Russian-speaking and often takes a more sceptical view of both the European Union and the United States.
The protests began in November 2013 in response to Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to scrap a landmark pact with the EU in favour of closer Russia ties.
Ukraine has since signed the EU trade and political association agreement and blamed Russia for plotting and backing the war in reprisal for Kiev’s shift out of the Kremlin’s orbit.
Russia denies the charge and accuses the US State Department of stoking the protests and trying to win over Ukraine.
But debates in Kiev rage mostly over who was responsible for the worst carnage in Ukraine since World War II.
Both the protesters and the police accuse each other of opening the fire.
A 2015 BBC documentary strongly suggested that a far-right fringe element of the protest group shot at the police in order to provoke a response and make the Berkut seem responsible for the resulting deaths.
Ukraine strongly denies the claim.
Yet Yanukovych gave credence to it by accusing civilians of seizing weapons from the interior ministry and SBU security service buildings before shooting at the police.
“And some of the people simply came with hunting rifles,” he said yesterday.
AFP reporters at the scene of those tragic events said most of the people had little more than metal shields to protect themselves from police sniper fire.
The festering conflict in the EU’s backyard – one of the bloodiest since the 1990s Balkans Wars – has created tensions across eastern Europe and plunged Moscow’s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low.
Journalists are at work at a Kiev courtroom as Yanukovych is seen via live video link from Russia.