By MARIA DANILOVA and YURAS KARMANAU, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — In a fast-moving day that aimed to reshape Ukraine's political destiny, protest leaders and the beleaguered president agreed Friday to form a new government and hold an early election. Parliament slashed the powers of President Viktor Yanukovych and voted to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison.
It was a crucial shift in Ukraine's months-long standoff between Yanukovych and protesters angry that he abandoned closer ties with Europe in favor of a bailout deal with longtime ruler Russia.
If it holds, the ambitious, European-mediated agreement could be a major breakthrough in a months-long crisis over Ukraine's identity. The standoff 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.
But not all sides embraced the deal. A Russian mediator refused to sign it, and a senior Russian lawmaker criticized it as being crafted for the West.
And at the sprawling protest encampment in central Kiev, anger percolated among the thousands massed Friday night. Hardened Ukrainian protesters angry over police violence said they were determined to stand their ground until Yanukovych steps down.
Protesters booed opposition figures who took to a stage Friday evening to present the deal. One radical speaker threatened to go on an armed offensive if the opposition doesn't demand the president's resignation by Saturday morning. Others started chanting "Death to the criminal!" referring to Yanukovych.
The agreement signed Friday calls for presidential elections scheduled for March 2015 to be held no later than December. Many protesters say December is too late; they want Yanukovych out immediately.
The U.S., Russia and the 28-nation EU are deeply concerned about the future of Ukraine, a divided nation of 46 million. The country's western regions want very much to be closer to the EU and have rejected Yanukovych's authority in many cities, while eastern Ukraine favors closer ties with Russia.
Hours after the deal was signed, Ukraine's parliament voted to restore the 2004 constitution that limits presidential authority, clawing back some of the powers that Yanukovych had pushed through for himself after being elected in 2010.
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 Thursday in Kiev, the capital that has been nearly paralyzed by the protests.
The next order of business was Tymoshenko. Legislators voted to decriminalize the count under which she was imprisoned, meaning that she is no longer guilty of a criminal offense.
"Free Yulia! Free Yulia!" legislators chanted.
However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law, and then Tymoshenko's lawyers would have to ask the court for her release from prison in the eastern city of Kharkiv. The charismatic blond-braided heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution — which also drove Yanukovych from the presidency — Tymoshenko served as prime minister and narrowly lost the 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych.
The next year, she was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison on abuse of office charges that the West has denounced as a political vendetta.
With Yanukovych's supporters quitting his party one after another throughout the day Friday, legislators also approved an amnesty for protesters involved in violence.
Ukrainian authorities will now name a new unity government that includes top opposition figures within 10 days.
The deal was a result of two days and all-night shuttle diplomacy by top diplomats from Germany, France and Poland, who talked with the president and the opposition.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the deal is consistent with what Washington was advocating, and that the U.S. will closely monitor whether it is fulfilled, holding out the threat of more sanctions if it's not.