Ukraine’s president and opposition leaders signed a political deal today that curbs some of President Viktor Yanukovich's power and calls for new elections, but leaves him in office at least until December.
It remains to be seen whether the pact will defuse violence in the capital of Kiev where protesters have battled security forces, leaving about 100 people dead. One of their main demands was Yanukovich's resignation.
As news of the deal came, little changed on Kiev’s Independence Square, the heart of the protests and violence. Protesters dressed in camouflage and flak jackets continued reinforcing their makeshift barricades, none appeared ready to go home in light of the agreement.
"It's a good step, a good hope. But do you know many times they tricked us?" asked an elderly protester who was wearing a helmet and had a Ukrainian flag over his mouth. "I took part in the fight, I carried people away who were wounded," he said and dismissed suggestions that he and other demonstrators would leave as a girl gave out food to the protesters.
A young man wearing camouflage agreed that the protest would go on. "I don't think it was the end today, it's going to continue," he said.
In the hours after the deal was signed, Ukraine's parliament quickly voted several measures including the release of former prime minister and opposition figure Yulia Tymoshenko from house arrest, voted to fire the country's interior minister who was in charge of security forces that fired on protesters, and voted amnesty for protesters.
The deal, as announced on Yanukovich’s website, would “initiate” early elections, return to the 2004 version of Ukraine’s constitution, and form a government of “national trust.” The announcement did not say when elections would be, but sources told Ukrainska Pravda newspaper the deal would revert to the 2004 constitution within 48 hours, form a coalition government within 10 days, and hold elections in December, just a couple months before they were originally scheduled.
The compromise was hammered out by diplomats from Poland, France and Germany. Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted that the deal is a "Good compromise for Ukraine. Gives peace a chance. Opens the way to reform and to Europe. Poland and EU support it."
U.S. Ambassador Geoff Pyatt called it a "hopeful breakthrough."
Any deal, however, will likely do little to heal the deep divides in Ukraine. Those in the square, primarily from the country’s West, favor an embrace of Europe and are angry about pervasive corruption in government. Many in eastern Ukraine, however, remain behind Yanukovich and support his decision to maintain strong ties with Moscow.
The arrangement appears to have been a disappointment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has backed Yanukovich and opposed Ukraine’s embrace of Europe. The Kremlin’s appointed mediator, Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin, reportedly planned to return to Moscow. According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Lukin declined to sign on to a peace deal.
In Independence Square today, news of a deal that keeps Yanukovich in power until December was met with outrage and chants of “No agreement, only resignation.” Protesters were not leaving the square today.
Protest leaders had rejected an offer last month to join the government. Instead they insisted on Yanukovich’s immediate resignation. The crowd on the streets made it clear anything short of that will not be acceptable.
The United States also leaned on Yanukovich. Vice President Joe Biden called the Ukrainian president on Thursday, warning that Washington was prepared to impose sanctions.
The Obama administration and Congress are both readying new sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans on those deemed responsible for the violence. Those measures would add to similar moves this week by The European Union and Canada.