President Viktor Yushchenko reached across the Orange Revolution's barricades Thursday and nominated his arch rival to lead Ukraine's government out of nearly five months of political paralysis.
The deal, reached as a constitutional deadline that expired Wednesday night, creates a "grand coalition" between the pro-Western Mr. Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement and Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, which favors closer ties with Russia. Ukraine's parliament, the Supreme Rada, is expected to elect Mr. Yanukovych as prime minister on Friday.
Critics suggest the accord has betrayed the Orange Revolution and played into Moscow's hands. Some, including Yushchenko's former ally Yulia Tymoshenko, who heads the second largest party in parliament, say they will boycott the Rada and call their supporters into the streets to protest.
"We are putting up our tents in the streets again, and we are going to take this to the people," says Yevgeny Zolotaryov, reached by phone. He's the leader of Pora, a small party allied with Ms. Tymoshenko. "This is farewell to Yushchenko, who failed to be a leader to the nation and, frankly, betrayed his voters. It is the end of the Orange Revolution."
But some experts say the bargain may be the best way for deeply divided Ukraine to muddle through without an open political split between its nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking west and the industrialized, heavily Russified east. "This was not a victory of one side over the other, but a set of workable compromises," says Oleksander Shushko, an expert with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "Some in Ukraine don't want to see any cooperation with Yanukovych at all, but that would deepen the divisions in the country."
Speaking on television Thursday, Yushchenko said national unity was his key concern. "We have a good chance to escape political war and pass to political competition," he argued. "We have another chance to unite Ukraine today."
March parliamentary elections left the 450-seat Rada almost evenly divided between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko's Orange parties and Yanukovych's Party of Regions. Tymoshenko, a fiery populist who was fired as prime minister by Yushchenko a year ago, demanded she be given her old job back as the price of supporting an Orange coalition. Amid the bickering last month, the small Socialist Party, which holds the balance of power, crossed the floor and joined Yanukovych, wrecking Orange hopes and precipitating the current crisis.
"Yushchenko is in a very difficult situation, but he is thinking of the country," says Vira Nanivska, president of the Academy of State Management in Kiev. "His vision is that we cannot be divided, we must compromise – but not with our basic values – and we must learn to work together. He has not yielded on any issue of substance."
The outlines of the bargain, made public Thursday, suggest that Yushchenko's key foreign policy concern – Ukraine's drive for NATO membership – will go ahead unimpeded. The Western military alliance could issue an invitation to Ukraine to begin the process of induction at its Riga Summit this November. But Yanukovych won a pledge that joining the organization would have to be approved by Ukrainians in a referendum. "The prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine is very fragile," says Masha Lipman, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Polls show the majority of Ukrainians do not support the idea at this time."
Yanukovych also toned down his demand that more power be handed to Ukrainian regions, and for the Russian language – which is spoken by over half of Ukrainians – to be granted official status. "Russian will be treated under Ukrainian law as a minority language, not as a second official language, and that's a big step back from Yanukovych's campaign promises," says Mr. Shushko.
While the return of Yanukovych may be greeted with pleasure in Moscow, it probably does not signal any serious geopolitical shift. "Of course people in the Kremlin are probably gloating, and happy to see Yushchenko so much weaker than he was before," says Ms. Lipman. "But Ukrainian politicians, including Yanukovych, have every reason to seek a balance between Russia and the West, not to go one way or the other."
But some Ukrainians worry that Russia could be fanning separatist sentiment in eastern Ukraine, where economic links and pro-Moscow sympathies are strong. Earlier this summer, a wave of anti-NATO demonstrations rocked the largely Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula – home to the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet – which many Russian nationalists believe should not be part of Ukraine.
"The current political crisis is the last resort for Russia," says Ms. Nanivska. "They will try to take advantage of this opportunity to split Ukraine."
Yushchenko's only alternative to trying to find common ground with Yanukovych had been to wield his constitutional power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.
But a poll conducted in mid-July by the independent Kiev International Institute of Sociology found that if fresh elections were held, voter turnout among exhausted Ukrainians would be a low 56 percent, and Yanukovych's Party of Regions would win an outright majority of 50.3 percent of the votes. And Yushchenko's fiery Orange rival Tymoshenko would take 22 percent and Yushchenko's own Our Ukraine movement would receive less than 10 percent.
"Tymoshenko is trying to get people into the streets, to oppose any agreement and force new elections," says Nanivska. "It's hard to say what will happen. It's going to be a tense couple of weeks coming up."