Opposition leaders sign peace deal with Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych
President Yanukovych makes concessions, including a reduction in his powers and early elections, while parliament votes to free Tymoshenko
Ukraine's opposition leaders signed an EU-mediated peace deal with President Viktor Yanukovych yesterday, aiming to resolve a political crisis in which dozens have been killed and opening the way for an early presidential election this year.
In a fast-moving day that could significantly shift Ukraine's political destiny, the newly empowered parliament also fired the country's despised interior minister and voted to free Yuliya Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who has spent more than two years in jail for what supporters say are politically tainted charges.
Under pressure to quit from mass demonstrations in Kiev, Russian-backed Yanukovych made a series of concessions to his pro-European opponents.
"There are no steps that we should not take to restore peace in Ukraine," the president said. "I announce that I am initiating early elections."
He said Ukraine would revert to a previous constitution under which parliament had greater control over the make-up of the government, including the prime minister.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the EU mediators, said the deal provided for a presidential election this year, although no date had been set. The vote had been due in March 2015.
Within hours of the signing, the Ukrainian parliament voted to revert to a 2004 constitution that strips the head of state of some of his prerogatives.
The parliament then voted to fire the interior minister, Vitali Zakharchenko, who is widely despised and blamed for ordering police violence. The next order of business was Tymoshenko. Legislators voted 310-54 to decriminalise the count under which she was imprisoned, meaning she is no longer guilty of a criminal offence.
"Free Yuliya! Free Yuliya!" legislators chanted after the vote. It was not clear when she might be released.
With Ukraine caught in a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West, at least 77 people have been killed this week in the worst violence since the independent country emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991.
There was a thunderous silence from the Kremlin, where President Vladimir Putin's spokesman declined comment.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of Russia's State Duma foreign affairs committee and a member of Putin's United Russia party, said the accord was positive if it ended the violence.
"But I don't think it resolves any of the core problems which Ukraine is facing: economics, ethnic relations and governability," he said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said implementing the accord would be crucial and would be "very challenging".
Anti-government protesters remained encamped in Kiev's central Independence Square.
Many activists were suspicious.
"He gave the order to kill, so how can we live with him now until December?" said Vasily Zakharo, 40.
Pentagon's phone calls to Ukrainian defence ministry go unanswered
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has been unable to get anyone on the phone at Ukraine's defence ministry over the past several days as violence flared and Kiev named a new head of the armed forces general staff, the Pentagon said.
Spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a news briefing: "Here in the Pentagon, we've been trying to [connect with them] pretty diligently this whole week."
Kirby said he was also unaware of any successful military-to-military contacts between the United States and Ukraine, and acknowledged it is usually not so difficult for Hagel to get a foreign counterpart on the phone. Hagel and the Ukrainian defence minister spoke in December, Kirby noted. "I'd say it's pretty unusual," he said.
The Pentagon has been warning the Ukrainian military to stay out of the country's political crisis, calls echoed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Kirby said reports from US embassy personnel in Kiev indicate that, so far, Ukraine's military is not involved in clashes between security forces and protesters.
Instead, the Ukrainian armed forces were being used to protect military facilities, including weapons and ammunition storage facilities, Kirby said. He renewed US calls to keep them out of the mix.
"[Hagel] urges the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to refrain from participating in the conflict, a conflict that can and should be resolved politically," Kirby said.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych appointed a new head of the armed forces general staff on Wednesday. His presidential decree gave no explanation for the change.