Despite deal, Ukrainian street remains wary

Many anti-government protesters unsatisfied with agreement reached between President Yanukovich and opposition leaders

Anti-government protesters gathered in Independence Square on Feb. 21, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Following another deadly day of clashes in Ukraine and heavy pressure from Western powers to end the violence, President Viktor Yanukovich and opposition leaders struck a deal Friday aimed at bringing the country’s three-month political crisis to an end. But radical protesters and some pro-Russian factions rejected it, leaving lingering doubts over whether peace could be restored.

On a day of electrifying developments, the Ukrainian parliament also opened a path for Yulia Tymoshenko — Yanukovich's political nemesis — to be released from prison where she was serving time for controversial charges of political corruption.

But in spite of what looked like a significant government retreat, protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present the deal, which cuts Yanukovich's powers and calls for early elections but falls short of demands for his immediate resignation.

Vitaly Klitschko, one of three primary opposition leaders along with Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok, attempted to soothe discontent in Independence Square, also known as Maidan, the center of opposition in the capital Kiev.

"He's not going to resign," Klitschko told the crowd, urging them to come to terms with the political realities at hand. "We have to think about realistic steps."

The divergent goals of protesters filling central Kiev from those of their leadership point to a difficult political road ahead, as leaders struggle to control and unify the diverse opposition groups while continuing to implement Friday's agreement.

We won't follow Klitschko and the rest of them. They shook hands with a gangster and danced with the devil.

While European Union leaders and the White House praised the deal as a positive step forward to ending the country's crisis, Russia made grudging comments that fell short of endorsing it, despite being involved in the mediation process. European foreign ministers signed the document as witnesses, but a Russian envoy did not.

The envoy, Vladimir Lukin, acknowledged Moscow had fallen behind the EU in diplomacy: "The EU representatives were in their own way trying to be useful, they started the talks ... We joined the talks later, which wasn't very right. One should have agreed on the format of the talks right from the start," Lukin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Russia's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Lukin's refusal to sign the deal doesn't mean that Moscow isn't interested in looking for a compromise to end the bloodshed.

"We will stand ready to continue helping Ukrainians normalize the situation if they ask for it," it said.

The statement said Ukrainians should take into account all regions in its political transition — an apparent reference to areas in Ukraine's east and south that have close economic ties to Russia and where some see the protesters as puppets of the West.

But Leonid Slutsky, a Russian lawmaker who chairs the committee in charge of relations with other ex-Soviet nations, told reporters that the agreement serves the interests of the West.

"We realize where and by whom this agreement has been written. It's entirely in the interests of the United States and other powers, who want to split Ukraine from Russia," he said.

Immediate reform

Friday's agreement was preceded by a standoff between the government and protesters that escalated to new heights this week, as protesters clashed with police and snipers opened fire in the worst violence the country has seen since the breakup of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago. The Health Ministry put the death toll at 77, but opposition figures said the toll is even higher.

Hours after the deal was signed, Ukraine's parliament voted to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that Yanukovich had pushed through for himself after being elected in 2010.

Parliament then voted to fire the interior minister, Vitaly Zakharchenko, who is widely despised and blamed for ordering police violence, including the snipers who killed scores of protesters Thursday in Kiev.

As a bold final act, the parliament, which once was overwhelmingly pro-Yanukovich, approved a measure that is set to free Tymoshenko, one of the government's stalwart arch-rivals who has served two and a half years on a conviction of abuse of office, charges that domestic and Western critics have denounced as a political vendetta. Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which Tymoshenko was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offense.

An angry crowd

Despite Friday's deal, a number of potential spoilers threaten to scupper the implementation of any agreement, the most obvious of which is dissatisfaction among protesters who remain in Kiev's main square, the lifeline of the three-month long protests. 

Emotional crowds said they would not wait any longer for Yanukovich to go. Passions intensified as the coffin of a victim from Thursday's violence was carried through the crowd to the stage on the square, apparently catching opposition leaders off guard.

Many on the square were in no mood to call off the protests after news of the deal broke. When he spoke Friday evening, Klitschko drew cat-calls and derisive whistling from protesters after praising the "very important" political achievements of the day. He later apologized for shaking Yanukovich's hand during the signing of the agreement, telling the crowd: "If I offended anyone, I ask their forgiveness."

That was not enough for 35-year-old Volodymir from the western city of Lviv near the Polish border: "We won't follow Klitschko and the rest of them. They shook hands with a gangster and danced with the devil."

"I'm going to fight until the death," said Vasily Stefinyuk, a 50-year-old veteran of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from the northeastern city of Kharkiv.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter