KIEV, Ukraine — A peace deal was signed Friday between embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leaders calling for early presidential elections later in the year, the formation of a coalition government and the ceding of some presidential powers to parliament.
The arrangement is aimed at defusing the worst political crisis in the history of post-Soviet Ukraine and stopping the spreading violence which in the last few days has claimed more than 100 lives and left hundreds injured in bloody clashes in Kiev and elsewhere across the country.
The agreement signed Friday afternoon provided for passage within 48 hours legislation restoring the constitution of 2004, thus delegating many of the current presidential powers to parliament and restoring what critics say has been a lost balance of power.
The most important part of the agreement, however, was devoted to early presidential elections, to be held no later than December.
The two sides also agreed that an objective investigation into the recent protester deaths would be conducted under monitoring by the opposition and the Council of Europe.
The agreement buried the idea of introducing a state of emergency in the country and compelled parliament to pass a new amnesty for protesters involved in the recent clashes.
The agreement bound the opposition to hand over to authorities all illegal weapons within 24 hours as soon as a special law to that effect is passed.
On behalf of the opposition, the agreement was signed by its leaders, Vitali Klitschko, Oleg Tyagnibok and Arseny Yatsenyuk.
The signing in the Presidential Administration building was witnessed by Polish and German foreign ministers and a high-ranking French diplomat
“In these tragic days when Ukraine suffered such heavy losses, when people died on both sides of the barricades, I consider it my duty in solemn memory of the slain to state that there is nothing more important than human life,” Yanukovich said in a statement published on his official website after the signing. “There are no such steps which we ought not to take together to restore peace in Ukraine.”
Ukraine's parliament later in the day endorsed the amnesty, and restored much of the 2004 constitution, turning the tables once again in favor of parliament.
In another concession to the opposition, parliament fired Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko, hated by protesters, whom he frequently referred to as extremists and who hold him responsible for numerous alleged crimes committed by the police against protesters.
To add insult to injury for Yanukovich, 17 lawmakers from his ruling party announced Friday that they were abandoning the party.
Some experts called Friday's events revolutionary but doubted that a majority of the protesters could be persuaded to accept the compromise.
“Yanukovich went to long lengths to preserve his position in power for some more time, but it is not a fact that he may politically survive til the new presidential election,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Penta Applied Political Research Center, a Kiev-based think tank, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “Very many protesters, if not a majority, are demanding Yanukovich step down immediately. They are driven by vengeance and euphoria of victory and it will be very difficult to persuade them to accept that compromise.”
“If the leaders of the opposition fail to make protesters go home now, the continuing standoff may once again turn violent and fraught with dire consequences from loss of more lives to the split of the country,” Fesenko concluded, explaining the aggressive compliance of the parliament by the fact that the agreement spared the lawmakers early elections, allowing them to keep their jobs until 2017, when their term expires.
As reduced forces of riot police continued to protect key government buildings while no longer blocking streets and squares, the protesters, who appeared unimpressed by Yanukovich's statement, continued to fortify their new barricades on Grushevsky Street and around Independence Square in central Kiev.
“Yanukovich's word is worth nothing to us,” said Alexander Chekmaz, a 38-year-old lawyer from the city of Mykolayev, dressed in a camouflage suit and military helmet and holding a club while manning an opposition checkpoint on Grushevsky Street. “Yanukovich has deceived many times before, so we will only believe him when he steps down.”
The mood at the opposition camp in Independence Square later in the day was even less jubilant as thousands of people paid respects to the victims of recent violence, many shot by snipers on Wednesday.
The caskets of slain protesters were solemnly brought into the square one after another. People prayed and sang the national anthem. Many cried and some needed medical assistance.
“How can we let this butcher continue to run the country even for a while more,” said Olga Boiko, a 33-year-old accountant from Chernovtsy. “Yanukovich should answer for all these deaths.”