The future of Ukraine appears more uncertain than ever after thousands of protesters angrily denounced an agreement aimed at ending months of unrest.
While politicians managed to reach a deal on Friday that will see the removal of embattled President Viktor Yanukovych by December, the thousands of protesters still on the streets here made it clear they want him out immediately and some vowed to take up arms if that doesn’t happen.
“The Right Sector is not putting down our weapons,” said Dmytro Yarosh, who leads the right-wing organization which some have labelled extremist. “We are not going to stop any of our activities until Yanukovych resigns.”
It was a day of drama and intrigue in Kiev. Under intense pressure from European diplomats alarmed at the increasingly violent confrontation between the Moscow-backed government and its opponents, Mr. Yanukovych and the three main opposition party leaders emerged with an agreement to set up a unity government and hold early elections.
The negotiations were aimed at calming the popular uprising – dozens of people were killed in the now wrecked centre of the capital this week – but they risk exacerbating tensions between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine.
A Russian envoy in Kiev refused to sign the accord, although EU mediators signed as witnesses. But whether Russia will accept the concessions is unclear. Later on Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin had what was described as “constructive” discussions, speaking by phone for about an hour, mainly about the Ukraine crisis.
A senior State Department official said the two leaders agreed that the deal “needed to be implemented quickly, that it was very important to encourage all sides to refrain from violence, that there was a real opportunity here for a peaceful outcome.”
Much is at stake as well for the European Union, which had sought closer ties with Ukraine only to see Mr. Yanukovych rebuff the offer under pressure from Mr. Putin. The tensions remain and were underscored by the comments of Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, who described the agreement in a tweet as a “good compromise for Ukraine [that] opens the way for reform and to Europe.”
After the deal was struck, the Ukrainian parliament overwhelmingly approved several measures to limit Mr. Yanukovych’s power, set up an interim unity government, reform electoral laws and hold presidential elections by December instead of next March. The parliament also approved a motion that will free former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko who led the Orange Revolution 10 years ago and has been in jail for more than two years on charges allegedly trumped up by Mr. Yanukovych.
The EU-brokered agreement was as difficult for the Ukrainian opposition leaders to swallow as for Mr. Yanukovych. Earlier in the day, Mr. Sikorski was filmed by a British TV network during a break in the talks pleading with opposition delegates to accept it: “If you don’t support this, you’ll have martial law, you’ll have the army, you’ll all be dead.”
But when those opposition leaders took the stage at Independence Square, the site of months of protests against Mr. Yanukovych, they were booed by thousands of people. Many shouted “shame” and “death to the criminal” as the leaders tried to speak, and some threw fireworks to drown them out.
The gathering was interrupted several times by prayers for the roughly 100 people who died this week during violent clashes between protesters and police. Small groups of protesters also carried several coffins through the crowd to chants of “heroes.”
“We had a small victory today,” Vitali Klitschko, a former boxer who leads an opposition party called United Democratic Alliance for Reform, told the crowd before he had to stop because of the whistling and jeers. He tried to resume, telling the crowd not to turn on each other and to continue the fight against Mr. Yanukovych, but was once more cut off by whistling and shouts of “shame.”
One man took the stage and yelled at the leaders: “If you don’t follow through by 10 o’clock [Saturday] on Yanukovych’s resignation, we are going to do it ourselves.”
“I can’t have Yanukovych as my president,” said Tatyana Gerasymova, a management consultant as she stood watching the speakers. “I can’t accept him as a president until December.”
Others said allowing Mr. Yanukovych to remain in office for several months was unacceptable given that so many people had died this week. “I don’t really understand why it took almost 100 people dead for politicians to understand what they should have done months ago,” said Natasha Kanevska. The deal “is not enough.”
Signs of Mr. Yanukovych’s weakening grip on power emerged throughout the day. Hundreds of riot police surrounded the parliament buildings Friday morning, and briefly prevented MPs from entering. By mid-afternoon, the police were gone. They had also been pulled from several other locations, leaving none in the central core.
The accord will be tested in the coming days. Groups of protesters have been assigned to guard the parliament buildings and other government offices, leaving questions about what role the police will have under the interim government. The fate of Mr. Yanukovych and his son, who have amassed enormous wealth, is unclear and one opposition MP said he expects the President and his family to leave the country.
There were indications of some vigilante justice on Friday. At one point in the afternoon a truck believed to be carrying two security force officers raced across the plaza in front of the parliament buildings, nearly hitting a crowd of people. As the truck moved out on the street it was chased by a group of protesters, including one man with a gun. They eventually caught up to the truck and smashed the windows, but those inside had fled.
Vitaly Cheubunikov, a MP with Mr. Klitschko’s party, said in an interview that he believed the protesters will eventually accept the arrangement because it is a critical step forward. “This is one of the most important days in Ukraine’s history,” he said after the vote. Mr. Cheubunikov added that the agreement with Mr. Yanukovych and the release of Ms. Tymoshenko, put Ukraine on a path to join the European Union and move away from Russia.
But another opposition MP, Lesia Orobets of the Fatherland Party, expressed fears the deal will divide the protesters in the square, known as “Maidan.” “There is a huge risk that there will be a split in Maidan to more radical and more conservative factions,” Ms. Orobets said in an interview Friday. “One hundred funerals, it’s what we will have tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. It’s something that cannot be forgiven.”