MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled to Russia a year ago after being toppled by months of street protests, said he was ready to return to Ukraine if the opportunity arose.
The pro-Russian leader was overthrown by the “Maidan” uprising in Kiev against his decision to back away from a deal that would have taken the country towards integration with Europe and instead tighten economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s old Soviet master.
Just weeks after his departure, Moscow annexed the Crimea peninsula, a base for Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and pro-Russian separatists seized key buildings in the east of the country leading to a conflict in which more than 5,000 people have been killed.
Interpol has put Yanukovich on the international wanted list at the behest of Kiev authorities on charges of embezzlement and financial wrongdoing. But Russia is likely to turn down any request to extradite him, Interfax news agency said last month, citing a source familiar with the situation.
Yanukovich, who has denied any involvement in corruption, said in a TV interview aired on Saturday he regretted that he could not return to his country.
“God has left me alive, so it looks like I’m needed for something ... As soon as there is a possibility for me to return, I will return and will do everything I can to make life better in Ukraine. And today, the main task is to stop the war,” he told Russian First channel.
Yanukovich fled from Kiev by helicopter after three days of shootings in which more than 100 civilians were killed. He later said he had fled because he feared for his life.
He is still a hate figure in the capital and parts of central and western Ukraine where he is held responsible for the shootings. If he did suddenly return, it seems likely he would be arrested and put on trial.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Friday that phone records showed there was evidence of regular conversations between Yanukovich and Russia’s security services which revealed a “clear Russian link” to the shootings.
“They prepared for the shooting together in advance,” Poroshenko was quoted as saying by Interfax, adding that a top aide of Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed “foreign sniper groups”.
Russia said that suggestions a Kremlin aide was behind some of the sniper killings was “nonsense”.
A peace deal was brokered by Germany and France this month in a bid to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, but a ceasefire that came into force a week ago has already been breached.
On Saturday, pro-Kremlin organizations staged a rally on Moscow to condemn the overthrow of Yanukovich in the uprising known as Maidan, the local name for Kiev’s Independence Square which was the center of the revolt.
Organizers said that around 20,000 took to the streets in the so-called “Anti-Maidan” march to show their support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine and condemn the uprising against Yanukovich in Kiev.
Smaller rallies were staged in other Russian cities and in Crimea.
Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth in Kiev; Editing by Pravin Char