A compromise that would reschedule Ukraine's disputed presidential polls might, at least temporarily, defuse the nearly two-week-old crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets and almost shut down the country's fragile economy.
But the deal, brokered by outgoing President Leonid Kuchma between contending candidates Viktor Yanukovich and Viktor Yushchenko, looks short on details and could yet dissolve in acrimony. Some orange-clad supporters of Mr. Yushchenko, who have braved freezing temperatures to blockade Kiev government buildings for the past several days, say they won't accept any bargain with the hated Kuchma regime that doesn't put their man into the presidency immediately. Many others are awaiting a decision by Ukraine's Supreme Court, expected Friday, hoping it will provide a legal formula to leave behind the fraud-plagued Nov. 21 election and move forward to a strengthened and reformed democracy.
"Whatever happens now, Ukraine is a different country than it was before these elections," says Oleksandr Sushko, an expert with the independent Institute of Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "It's impossible to go back. But it is crucial that we find a resolution that provides legal legitimacy and the broadest possible national unity."
As part of the compromise, Yushchenko ordered his supporters to lift the blockade of government buildings Thursday and allow Mr. Kuchma, acting prime minister Mr. Yanukovich, and other officials into their offices for the first time in more than a week. But some of the protesters, who have been living in tents and cooking over campfires, were refusing to budge.
"We are not happy with the compromise," says Taras Babilya, spokesman for a group of students from Uzhgorod, in the western Ukraine. "Right now, we feel we have achieved quite a lot and we do not want to back down."
They weren't alone. "We think the blockade should go on," agreed Mikhail Nadkievsky, an unemployed electrician from Ternopil, also in west Ukraine. "We've heard so much and suffered so much over these last 10 days. We don't want our struggle to be for nothing."
Meanwhile, Kuchma arrived in Moscow Thursday for "consultations" with President Vladimir Putin. They both want a full rerun of the elections - not just a replay of the second-round runoff between the two candidates. That would take at least three months and give Kuchma a chance to put forward a new heir, who might succeed where Yanukovich failed. Kuchma, whose two terms in office have been dogged by corruption scandals and allegations of complicity in the murder of a critical journalist, may fear prosecution unless he is able to install a loyalist in his place. Experts say Kuchma might ask former Central Bank chairman Sergei Tigipko or parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn to stand against Yushchenko in new polls.
"The story of Yanukovich is over, that's for sure," says Mr. Sushko. "But some other members of Kuchma's political circle might have a future. It's hard to say."
Yushchenko, eyeing the potential divisions in his own camp, wants a rapid replay of last month's flawed voting, this time under tough international supervision, perhaps as early as Dec. 19. He has so far dismissed any suggestion of entirely new polls as "laughable." Most experts hope these differences can be hammered out in the coming days, bringing a peaceful close to a crisis that has brought Ukraine, a nation of 48 million, to the brink of anarchy and national breakup.
"At this point I think the people in the streets will agree to anything, except a Yanukovich victory," says Oleksandr Chekmyshev, deputy director of the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. "We are expecting a decision that will be cause for celebration in the streets."
A less-noticed aspect of the bargain, agreed in the presence of Russian and European Union mediators, would initiate sweeping changes to Ukraine's Constitution, strengthen the role of Parliament, and reduce the powers of the presidency. Like Russia and other post-Soviet countries, Ukraine has drifted toward one-man rule of late. "We have a consensus on constitutional reform, which will greatly strengthen Ukrainian democracy," says Sushko. "So, although much remains unpredictable, I think we can say the Kuchma regime is finished."
Ukraine remains deeply split between its heavily Russified east and mainly agricultural, nationalistic western zones. Those long-simmering divisions have come roaring into the open during this crisis, and may yet provoke further turmoil. The coal-mining region of Donetsk, where official election results showed more than 90 percent voting for Yanukovich, is planning to hold a controversial referendum on "autonomy" next month to express its dissatisfaction with the turn of events in Kiev.
But for now, many Ukrainians are welcoming the tentative signs that peace may be breaking out. "I think the compromise is OK," says Petro Buiyak from Ivano-Frankivsk, who has spent the past 12 nights sleeping in a freezing tent near Kiev's main square. "The powers that be pushed us into this demonstration. Now I just want to get back to work."
And some are deeply worried about the economic hangover, which has seen the grivna plunge, prices rise, and dollars disappear from Kiev's usually flush currency exchanges. "Soon we will have to pay for this orange party," said one woman, who asked not to be named, standing in line at a money-exchange booth.