The protests began in November when President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly refused to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union, opting for closer ties with Russia. Yanukovych is widely despised in western Ukraine, but has strong support in the Russian-speaking east, where he’s from, as well as in the south. The pro-Western demonstrators saw Yanukovych’s move as a betrayal of national interests and submission to Moscow. Their numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands after a brutal crackdown by riot police. His supporters, meanwhile, see the opposition as manipulated by the West, and feel greater economic and cultural connection to Russia.
DETAILS OF THE DEAL
The president and opposition leaders signed a deal that calls for:
• Early presidential elections
• Reducing president’s power, including ability to fire cabinet
• The withdrawal of protesters from streets and squares.
• An investigation of the recent violence, which saw protesters shot by snipers
• Stipulates that no state of emergency — which would have given police more powers — will be imposed
Parliament also voted to release from prison former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko, a longtime rival of Yanukovych who is known as the princess of the 2004 Orange Revolution, was found guilty of abuse of power in 2011 and sentenced to seven years in prison. She lost the 2010 election to Yanukovych and was accused of exceeding her powers in signing a gas deal with Russia in 2009. Political scientist Igor Popov said she could become the most likely candidate for the next presidency.
The United States, Russia and the E.U. have tried to weigh on Ukraine’s future and were spooked by the spike in violence. Moscow sees what is now Ukraine as the birthplace of Russian statehood and Russian Orthodox Christianity. Most of modern-day Ukraine came under the control of the czars in the 1700s after being part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Except for some western regions, which were part of Poland between the two world wars and then became part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remained under Moscow’s control until the 1991 Soviet collapse. President Vladimir Putin sees close economic and political ties with Ukraine as essential for the success of his project to build an alliance of ex-Soviet neighbors.
The sharp divide between east and west has fueled fears of a messy breakup of the country. Friday’s deal — the result of two days of round-the-clock shuttle diplomacy by top diplomats from Germany, France and Poland — calls for protesters to abandon camps and government buildings they have seized around the country. Some remain angry, however, and there was no sign Friday night that they planned to leave Independence Square in Kiev, the nucleus of the movement. It also calls for constitutional changes reducing the president’s powers — which the parliament passed immediately. And it says a new government including the opposition must be formed within 10 days.