Ukraine agreement reached, but the street resists

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 21, 2014 at 6:07 pm •  Published: February 21, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Under heavy pressure from the West following a deadly day of clashes and sniper fire in the capital, President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders struck a deal Friday aimed at bringing Ukraine's three-month political crisis to an end. But radical protesters and some pro-Russian factions rejected it, leaving lingering doubts over whether peace could be restored.

On a day of electrifying developments, the Ukrainian parliament also opened a path for Yulia Tymoshenko —Yanukovych's political nemesis — to be let out of prison.

In spite of what looked like a significant government retreat, protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present the deal, which cuts Yanukovych's powers and calls for early elections but falls short of demands for his immediate resignation.

"Death to the criminal!" some chanted, referring to Yanukovych.

"Resign! Resign! Resign!" shouted others as one radical speaker threatened to go on an armed offensive if the opposition doesn't demand the president's resignation by Saturday morning.

Addressing the crowd in Kiev's Independence Square, opposition leader Vitali Klitschko tried to persuade them that Yanukovych had likely given all he was willing to give.

"He's not going to resign. This isn't realistic. We have to think about realistic steps," Klitschko said.

The agreement signed Friday calls for presidential elections to be moved up from March 2015 to no later than December, but many protesters said that is far too late. And it does not address the issue that set off the protests in November — Yanukovych's abandonment of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a bailout deal with longtime ruler Russia.

The standoff between the government and protesters escalated this week, as demonstrators clashed with police and snipers opened fire in the worst violence the country has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77 and some opposition figures said it's even higher.

The U.S., Russia and the 28-nation EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a divided nation of 46 million. The country's western regions want to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych's authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine favors closer ties with Russia.

Hours after the deal was signed, Ukraine's parliament voted to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that Yanukovych had pushed through for himself after being elected in 2010.

Parliament then voted to fire the interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, who is widely despised and blamed for ordering police violence, including the snipers who killed scores of protesters Thursday in Kiev, the capital that has been nearly paralyzed by the protests.

Then the parliament, which once was overwhelmingly pro-Yanukovych, took the bold move of approving a measure that could free arch-rival Tymoshenko, who has served two and a half years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta.

Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which Tymoshenko was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offense.

"Free Yulia! Free Yulia!" lawmakers chanted.

However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law, and then Tymoshenko's lawyers would have to ask the court for her release from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Yanukovych fears her popularity. The charismatic blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution — which also drove Yanukovych from the presidency — Tymoshenko served as prime minister and narrowly lost the 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych.

With Yanukovych's supporters quitting his party one after another Friday, legislators also approved an amnesty for protesters involved in violence.