Leaders of Ukraine's protest movement on Wednesday have proposed a top legislator as the country's next prime minister, while Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered major military exercises just across the border in a show of force and apparent displeasure over the country's new direction.

The new government, which is expected to be formally approved by parliament Thursday, will face the hugely complicated task of restoring stability in a country that is deeply divided politically and on the verge of financial collapse.

The country's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the capital over the weekend.

At Kiev's Independence Square, the heart of the protest movement against Yanukovych, the interim leaders who seized control after he fled proposed Arseniy Yatsenyuk as the country's new prime minister.

Yatsenyuk, 39, is a millionaire former banker who served as economy minister, foreign minister and parliamentary speaker before Yanukovych took office in 2010. Widely viewed as a technocratic reformer, he appears to enjoy the support of the U.S.

Earlier in the day, fistfights broke out between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine's strategic Crimea region, against the backdrop of Russia's military exercises.

The exercises involve most of the military units in central and western Russia, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised statement. He said the exercise would "check the troops' readiness for action in crisis situations that threaten the nation's military security."

Shoigu didn't specifically mention the turmoil in Ukraine, which is bitterly divided between pro-European western regions and pro-Russian areas in the east and south.

Three months of protests forced Yanukovych to go into hiding as his foes set up an interim government following violent clashes between protesters and police that left more than 80 people dead.

Clashes in Crimea 

In Crimea's regional capital of Simferopol, about 20,000 Muslim Tatars who rallied in support of the interim government clashed with a smaller pro-Russian rally. A health official said that at least 20 people have been injured, while the local health ministry said one person died from an apparent heart attack.

The tensions in Crimea — a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea that is strategically critical because it is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet — highlight the divisions that run through this country of 46 million. It also underscores fears that the country's mainly Russian-speaking east will not recognize the interim authorities' legitimacy.

"This is exactly what Kyiv is worried about — that the factionalism here in Crimea will break down and that Crimea will go back to Russia," CBC correspondent Susan Ormiston said from Crimea.

"Inside the parliament here, that's exactly what they're talking about this morning. Whether they want to and can go back to Russia."

Ormiston said the situation was very tense. While in the early going the crowds were of a similar size, eventually the pro-Ukraine protesters greatly outnumbered the pro-Russia group. 

The protesters shouted and attacked each other with stones, bottles and punches, as police and leaders of both rallies struggled to keep the two groups apart.

They started to disperse after the speaker of the regional legislature announced it would postpone a crisis session, which many Tatars feared would have taken steps toward seceding from Ukraine.

"The threat of separatism has been eliminated," Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Tatar community in Crimea, told the crowd.


Map: A divided Ukraine

European loyalties run highest in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, while the eastern half generally falls more into the Russian orbit. Hover over the red and blue dots to learn more about specific flashpoints in the conflict.





'We are ready to fight for Ukraine'

Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Muslim ethnic group who have lived in Crimea for centuries. They were brutally deported in 1944 by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin but returned after Ukraine's independence.

"We will not let the fate of our land be decided without us," said Nuridin Seytablaev, a 54-year-old engineer. "We are ready to fight for Ukraine and our European future."

Ukraine Protests

Protesters march in Kyiv's Independence Square on Wednesday, part of a three-month crisis that has gripped the entire country. Duelling protests have led to scuffles in the country's east. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Nearby, separated by police lines, Anton Lyakhov, 52, waved a Russian flag. "Only Russia can defend us from fascists in Kyiv and from Islamic radicals in Crimea."

According to the Russian defence minister, the military will be on high alert for two days as some troops deploy to shooting ranges. The actual manoeuvre will start Friday and will last four days, he said. The exercise will involve ships of the Baltic and the Northern Fleets and the air force.

The order came a day after a Russian lawmaker visiting Crimea said Moscow would protect the region's Russian-speaking residents, raising concerns that Russia might make a military move into Ukraine.

"We take it for granted that all nations respect the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and this is a message that we have also conveyed to whom it may concern," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

On Wednesday, Yanukovych's three predecessors as president issued a statement accusing Russia of "direct interference in the political life of Crimea."

Russia denies military intentions

Russian officials denied any plans to move militarily on Ukraine.

"That scenario is impossible," said Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, known as the Federation Council. She is a close Putin ally and was born in western Ukraine.

"Russia has been stating and reiterating its stance that we have no right and cannot interfere in domestic affairs of a sovereign state," said Matvienko. "We are for Ukraine as a united state, and there should be no basis for separatist sentiments."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined other Western leaders Tuesday in reaching out to Ukraine's yet-to-be formed transitional government, announcing that a high-level delegation would meet with the new leadership in Kyiv. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was to depart Wednesday with a group of parliamentarians and Ukrainian-Canadians bound for the capital.

Conservative MP James Bezan, who is secretary of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group, is part of the delegation.

"What we're experiencing in Crimea right now in is a little bit disheartening, but I think we need to continue to reach out to everyone across Ukraine regardless of their ethnicity and let them know that Canada in particular, but [also] the world, stands with a united Ukraine,' he told CBC News Network on Wednesday morning.

Bezan said that Putin's order to Russian troops was not helpful.

"We expect Russia and all of our partners in the region to respect Ukraine's independence, its borders, and its right to self-determination," he said.

Riot police force ordered disbanded

In Kyiv, the capital, protesters who have demanded that the new government be close to the people, cut down a fence surrounding the Parliament building.

UKRAINE-CRISIS/

Ukraine's acting interior minister says he has disbanded Berkut, the country's riot police force. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Ukraine's acting interior minister ordered the disbandment of a feared riot police force known as Berkut, which protesters blamed for violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators.

The force, whose name means "golden eagle," consisted of about 5,000 officers. It was unclear Wednesday whether its members would be dismissed or reassigned to other units.

Protesters took to the streets after Yanukovych's decision in November to reject an agreement that would strengthen ties with the EU and instead seek closer cooperation with Moscow.

Anti-Yanukovych protesters set up a camp on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, demonstrating against corruption and human rights abuses and calling for the president's resignation.

 

With files from CBC News