Ukraine deal offers new hope for end to violence

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In a fast-moving day that could significantly shift Ukraine’s political destiny, opposition leaders signed a deal with the country’s beleaguered president that calls for an early election, a new constitution and a new unity government.

Ukraine’s newly empowered parliament also fired the country’s despised interior minister and voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who has spent more than two years in jail for what supporters say are politically tainted charges.

It was not clear, however, how well the deal would go down with all the sides involved in Ukraine’s protracted political crisis. A senior Russian politician immediately criticised it as being crafted for the West, and Ukrainian protesters angry over police violence showed no signs of abandoning their encampment in central Kiev.

If it holds, the ambitious agreement could be a major breakthrough in a months-long crisis over Ukraine’s future, a stand-off that worsened sharply this week and left scores dead and hundreds wounded in the worst violence the country has seen since it became independent in 1991.

Within hours of the signing, Ukraine’s parliament voted to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that President Viktor Yanukovych had pushed through for himself after being elected in 2010.

Although Yanukovych retains an apparent majority in parliament, he loses the power to nominate the prime minister and to fire the Cabinet. MPs also approved an amnesty for protesters involved in violence.

The Verhovna Rada parliament then voted to fire the interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, who is widely despised and blamed for ordering police violence, including the snipers who killed scores of protesters on Thursday.

The next order of business was Tymoshenko. MPs voted 310-54 to decriminalise the charge under which she was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offence.

“Free Yulia! Free Yulia!” MPs chanted after the vote.

It’s not immediately clear when she might be released from the jail in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Three European foreign ministers spent two days and all night trying to negotiate an end to the stand-off, which began when Yanukovych decided not to sign a pact with the European Union in November in favour of having closer ties with Russia.

The US, Russia and the EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West.

The country’s western regions want very much to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych’s authority in many cities, while largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine favours closer ties with Russia.

The agreement signed today says presidential elections will be held no later than December, instead of March 2015 as scheduled. Many protesters say December is too late – they want Yanukovych out immediately. It was not clear how soon he will leave office.

Ukrainian authorities will now name a new unity government that includes top opposition figures within 10 days. But neither side won all the points it sought, and some vague conditions remain that could cause friction.

The deal says the government will not impose a state of emergency and both sides will refrain from violence.

It says opposition protesters should hand over weapons and withdraw from occupied buildings and protest camps around the country.

However, the agreement does not address the grievance that set off the protests in the first place – Yanukovych’s shelving of an deal that would have deepened ties with the European Union and his attempt to tie the former soviet satellite to Russia instead.

The avid desire of many Ukrainians to step out of Russia’s long shadow and become more integrated with the West remains a serious, unresolved issue for Ukraine.