MOSCOW (AP) — Speaking from Russia, Ukraine's ousted leader urged his citizens Friday to press for a vote to determine the status of their regions — a call echoing the Kremlin's push to turn Ukraine into a loosely knit federation.
The statement from Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian leader who fled to Russia last month after three months of protests, raised the threat of further instability in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces, where many resent the new Ukrainian government.
Deep divisions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions, where many favor close ties with Moscow, and the Ukrainian-speaking west, where most want to integrate into Europe, continue to fuel tensions.
The Crimea Peninsula, where ethnic Russians are a majority, voted this month to secede from Ukraine before Russia formally annexed it, a move that Western countries have denounced as illegitimate. Talk percolates of similar votes in other Ukrainian regions with large Russian populations, although none has been scheduled.
Yanukovych urged Ukrainians to demand a "referendum that would determine the status of each region in Ukraine," in a statement carried by the ITAR-Tass news agency. Yanukovych didn't specify when or how the vote should be held.
Russia has pushed strongly for federalizing Ukraine — giving its regions more autonomy — but Ukraine's interim authorities in Kiev have rejected such a move.
Following the statement, Ukrainian prosecutors opened a new investigation against Yanukovych on charges of calling for overthrowing the country's constitutional order.
In addition, Yanukovych's biggest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, attacked the statement, accusing Yanukovych of being "a tool aimed at destroying the independence of Ukraine." Tymoshenko is running in Ukraine's next presidential election, scheduled for May 25.
The Ukrainian government and the West have voiced concern about Russian troops' buildup near the border with Ukraine that stoked fears of an invasion. Russia's President Vladimir Putin has warned that Russia could use "all means" to protect people in Ukraine from radical nationalists.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that Moscow allowed observation flights over the border by Ukrainian, U.S., German and other Western officials. It said if any major troop concentrations had been spotted during the flights, the West wouldn't have been shy to speak about it.
Russia on Friday also kept pushing its long-held contention that ethnic minorities in Ukraine are living in fear after the ouster of the country's president and the coming to power of interim authorities. The Foreign Ministry statement said not just ethnic Russians, but ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Czechs in Ukraine also are feeling in peril.
"They are unsettled by the unstable political situation in the country and are seriously afraid for their lives," the statement said without citing specific incidents.
There have been no signs of such threats toward ethnic minorities in Ukraine.
Russia also said it has responded to Western sanctions over Ukraine but hasn't made any new names public.
Russian Foreign Ministry Alexander Lukashevich said some Western nations have followed the U.S. example and expanded their sanctions against Russia, adding that Moscow has taken "retaliatory measures, which are largely tit-for-tat." He wouldn't elaborate on who the new targets were.
The United States, the European Union and Canada have slapped Russia with travel bans and asset freezes targeting its officials and lawmakers over the annexation of Crimea. The U.S. and Canadian sanctions included businessmen close to Putin and a Russian bank, while the EU, which has much stronger economic ties with Russia, so far has limited its sanctions to officials and lawmakers.
Russia has responded by slapping travel bans on nine U.S. and 13 Canadian official and lawmakers, but so far hasn't retaliated against the EU.