President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders on Friday agreed to a plan to hold early elections as a start to resolving the political turmoil that has left as many as 70 dead and more than 500 injured.
But the leaders now face a significant new challenge in ending Ukraine’s three-month-long civil unrest: convincing tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters to go along with it.
On Independence Square, or the Maidan, thousands of demonstrators continued to pour into the barricaded area that has been at times a violent central point of the protesters’ demands for the embattled President Yanukovych to step down.
As details of Yanukovych’s proposal came in around midday, demonstrators seemed to listen only halfheartedly as they continued to reinforce barricades and stockpile bricks to be used as ammunition against government riot police in case of attack.
The deal was brokered during heated and lengthy negotiations in which the foreign ministers from France, Germany, and Poland, went back and forth between both sides for 24 hours in Kiev.
Yanukovych’s proposal – which was signed by opposition leaders Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok – would create a coalition government within 10 days; adopt constitutional changes to reinstate a parliamentary republic, thus significantly diminish presidential powers; and set early presidential elections by December, just two months earlier than the elections are scheduled for February 2015.
The Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed a bill this afternoon to start the constitutional changes as well as a law that grants full amnesty to protesters. It also moved to allow the courts to release Yulia Tymoshenko, though the legal process following the vote was unclear. Ms. Tymoshenko, a former prime minster and key opposition leader, has been in jail for more than two years on what she says are trumped-up corruption charges. Her face and image have been a symbol of the protesters, many of whom see her as a reformer able to challenge Yanukovych.
Further, deputies voted to remove Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, another key figure protesters hold responsible for the violence. Just a day before, the Rada passed a memorandum that called for an immediate end to the “anti-terrorist operations” that killed scores on Thursday as riot police fired on protesters on the Maidan.
Doubts on the Maidan
The bloodshed – the worst in Ukraine’s modern history – followed violent clashes on Tuesday between riot police and demonstrators that lasted for most of the day. Yanukovych’s government continues to blame the antigovernment demonstrators, referring to them as extremists.
Protesters, however, hold Yanukovych directly responsible for ordering the police to shoot on their own countrymen, and say they are not willing to back down on their defense of the Maidan until the president steps down. After losing friends, fellow protesters, and family members, many protesters said this was no time to give up.
“You can’t believe a word our president says,” says Oleh Kopynets, a massage therapist from Lviv, who was in a line with about 30 other men waiting to sign up to join the self-defense groups in charge of defending the barricades. “We are sure he will falsify any kind of election. He needs to step down.”
One of the more radical groups participating in the protests, the nationalist Right Sector, said it had rejected the proposal. “The national revolution continues,” it said on Twitter and its page on the popular Russian social media site VKontakte.
Right Sector, while not the only radical group on the square nor a representative of the majority of the demonstrators, still has influence among those Ukrainians who want nothing less than an end to Yanukovych’s “corrupt and criminal” regime.
Fallout for Yanukovych
Political support for Yanukovych wavered in parliament after several deputies defected late this week from the ruling Party of Regions, including the acting mayor of Kiev, Volodymyr Makeyenko. Mr. Makeyenko, who Yanukovych appointed as the mayor of the Kiev region in January, stepped down, saying he planned to do whatever he could to “stop the bloodshed” in the capital.
And on Friday, dozens of police officers from the western city of Lviv arrived early in the morning to Maidan to support the movement – a de facto defection from the government forces.
In several other regions across the western part of Ukraine, where the protest movements have their support base, regional administrations, state security offices, and police administrations have been seized by antigovernment protesters. The Interior Ministry on Thursday issued a statement that protesters had removed guns and ammunition from regional armories and were bringing them to arm protesters on Maidan.
“President Yanukovych doesn’t understand what is happening in the country. He doesn’t understand that enough is enough,” says Vira Nanivska, the director of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. “I think the president is still hoping that this is not the end, and I am not 100 percent sure that this is it.”
Ms. Nanivska described what was happening in western Ukraine as a “complete collapse of the whole vertical of the executive branch.”
Ready for more
The threat of renewed violence hung heavy in the air in Kiev, as tensions mounted on the square. Hundreds of new “self-defense” groups of young and old men could be seen lining up in formation on the Maidan, as women in bicycle helmets and homemade protective vests roamed around serving sandwiches and distributing water and clothing.
Despite Thursday’s deadly clashes, which saw dozens of people shot by police snipers, many on the square Friday say they will fight until the end to rid the country of the corruption and the authoritative government that they say has hindered the country’s post-Soviet economic and social development.
“Yanukovych has wasted a lot of our resources – including our blood – to secure his power. Now we must be ready to sacrifice for our freedom to get what we want,” says Sergey Maslo, a young engineer on Maidan.
Even if that includes more bloodshed and violent clashes with police?
“I’m ready,” he says, as he thumps his first on his chest to show that he is wearing body armor underneath his coat and sweater.