A faint glimmer of hope shone through Independence Square in Ukraine Friday following reports that the government had signed an internationally brokered deal for political reforms and a path to justice in the Eastern European nation.
Crowds camped out in the square, known as “Maidan,” which gave its name to the activists, reportedly cheered out after hearing of the agreement. It follows months of protests that came to a head this week, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned his security forces against their fellow citizens to forcibly end the unrest.
The agreement calls for a restoration of the Ukrainian constitution as it existed before the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” and returning power from the president back to the prime minister and to parliament. These reforms must be completed by September and new presidential elections must be held by the end of this year. The minister of the interior, considered responsible for overseeing the security forces that violently cracked down on the protesters, has also been fired by the parliament
There are many factors yet to be determined, including whether the protesters will accept all of these conditions, particularly as their chief demand that Yanukovych step down from office remains unmet. Under the agreed upon conditions, he could remain there until December. Many of the protesters have called for his immediate resignation:
It's also unclear whether opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko will be freed from jail or how those behind the vicious crackdown will be held responsible – the specific aim of new European Union and U.S. targeted sanctions against Ukraine. The agreement signed Friday states an “investigation into recent acts of violence” will be conducted under joint monitoring from “the authorities, the opposition and the Council of Europe.”
The Ukrainian parliament voted Friday to release Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, who has been imprisoned since 2011.
The Ukrainian political opposition is left with the herculean task of convincing the activists who remain in Independence Square that Friday's deal is a good one.
"The guys with the guns aren't strong enough to overcome the demonstrators," says Steve Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and expert on the region with the Brookings Institution. "But the demonstrators don't have the wherewithal to overcome the guys with guns."
He also points to members of Yanukovych's inner circle, worried about their political futures and who may object to his latest concessions. Russia, too, may try to derail the arrangement by stemming its gas exports to Ukraine, considered essential there.
Pifer has seen a picture of the signed agreement, which is missing a signature from the Russian delegate. Reportedly, Pifer says, because he was recalled to Moscow.
"I can fully see the anger," he says. "It's worth pursuing [the deal] because the alternative – no agreement – is going to be a lot more violence and a lot more dead."
Despite the uncertain future, experts say the agreement remains an important first step for the Eastern European nation, which is split by its newfound allegiances to Europe to the west and its Soviet history to the east.
“The situation changes within each hour,” said Oleh Shamshur, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. and adviser to the opposition movement, in a conference call organized by the Atlantic Council.
“[The opposition members] are afraid that time will be bought by the authorities and people will be cheated, and this time will be used to remove [protesting] forces,” he said, citing the tentative cease fire Wednesday that collapsed within hours.
But the opposition seems in agreement with the main elements of this deal, Shamshur said Friday morning from Ukraine, despite a climate of distrust.
“If [the government] follows up on their promises, and everything goes as would be promised in the parliament, in the streets, if perpetrators are put to trial, they would answer for their deeds, that would help build trust,” he said. “That’s an extremely long distance to cover.”
Western observers have considered Russian President Vladimir Putin a central piece in prompting the Ukrainian government’s recent action. Unrest began in Europe after Yanukovych accepted a multibillion dollar bailout from Russian to overturn Ukraine’s floundering economy instead of signing new economic accords with the E.U.
Putin was scheduled to speak with U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday afternoon.
“There is shared interest on the part of not just of Russia and the United States, but countries all around the world for peace and stability to be restored in Ukraine,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Friday. “The perpetuation of this violence, frankly, runs counter to the national interests of the United States. And I assume and I think it stands to reason that President Putin would think the same thing about Russia’s interests in these situations.”
Earnest said the dispute in Ukraine “is not the result of differing perspectives in Ukraine between the United States and Russia,” but rather the local population’s anger at what it believes is a corrupt political system.
The United States remains actively engaged in supporting friendly nominees within the political system, as exposed in top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone call from earlier in February.