KIEV - Ukraine’s leader and opposition on Friday signed a deal to end the splintered country’s worst crisis since independence after three days of carnage left nearly 100 protesters dead. President Viktor Yanukovych’s dramatic decision to hold early elections and form a new unity government was met with caution by the tens of thousands gathered on central Kiev’s main square for a protest that began exactly three months earlier. The deal was signed in the presidential palace’s Blue Hall in the presence of EU envoys by Yanukovych and and three top opposition leaders who included the charismatic boxer turned lawmaker Vitali Klitschko.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representative pointedly missed the meeting and his name card was taken off the table at which the leaders gathered for the signature ceremony. The peace pact met the demands the opposition had laid down at the start of the protests: the balance of political power would shift back to parliament - as it had been before Yanukovych assumed the presidency in 2010 and took the nation of 46 million on a course away from the West and toward Russia.
It would also create an opposition cabinet with the authority to reverse Yanukovych’s decision in November to ditch an historic deal that would have put Ukraine on the path to membership in a 28-nation bloc many Ukrainians see as their protector from centuries of Russian domination. The constitutional change was approved within minutes of the deal’s signature by 386 deputies in the 450-set Verkhovna Rada parliament. But the opposition has radicalised since police used live ammunition to mow down dozens with snipers and Kalashnikov rifles.
The chant of “death to the criminal” - a reference to two later-pardoned convictions for petty crime Yanukovych received in the Soviet era - rose over Kiev’s iconic Independence Square overnight Thursday.
“I think that Yanukovych must leave now, and never come back,” said a middle-aged protester named Lyudmila. “We do not need any elections. He should not be allowed to run.” EU president Herman van Rompuy said Friday’s deal was a “necessary compromise in order to launch an indispensable political dialogue that offers the only democratic and peaceful way out” of the crisis, which left the heart of Kiev resembling a war zone.
“It is now the responsibility of all parties to be courageous and turn words into deeds for the sake of Ukraine’s future,” he said. Three EU foreign ministers and a Russian envoy flew in for emergency talks on Thursday amid growing anxiety about a crisis that has turned Ukraine into a prize fought for with Cold War-era gusto by Moscow and the West.
The foreign ministers of EU powers France and Germany - as well as Ukraine’s culturally-close ally Poland - then went into separate talks with the opposition leaders in order to convince them to back the pact.
Klitschko is the closest the deeply fragmented protest movement has to a single leader who can articulate the demonstrators’ demands. But limits to his sway over the most militant elements of the opposition that has roots in the nationalist west of Ukraine has been repeatedly exposed in the course of the crisis.
“Even early elections this December do not guarantee that this crisis is over,” said Penta political research institute analyst Volodymyr Fesenko. “The big question now is whether the Maidan (Independence Square) support this solution.” The shocking scale of the bloodshed prompted EU officials to slap travel bans against Ukrainians responsible for ordering the use of force.
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said an agreement was also reached at an emergency EU meeting in Brussels to impose asset freezes on those with “blood on their hands”.
US Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday warned Yanukovych in a telephone conversation that Washington was ready to impose sanctions on officials guilty of ordering troops to fire on protesters. Ukraine’s former master Russia blasted the sanctions as “bullying”.
Kiev authorities have put the death toll from the past few days at 77. But opposition medics said more than 60 protesters were shot dead by police on Thursday alone - a toll that combined with the 28 victims on Tuesday put the final count at nearly 100 dead.
Life appeared to be returning to normal in much of Kiev as the city’s vital metro network resumed service after being shut down to keep protesters from reaching Independence Square on Tuesday night. But many protesters told AFP that the deal represented too little and came much too late.
“These steps were what we needed but I think it is now too late after all the blood that has been spilt,” said 58-year-old Sergiy Yanchukov. “It was a crime against humanity and Yanukovych should be sent to The Hague (home of the International Criminal Court).