KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine pulled back from the brink of chaos Friday when President Viktor Yanukovych signed a deal with opposition leaders to dilute his powers, form a caretaker government and hold early elections. But the accord appeared likely to be a hard sell among the thousands of demonstrators who vowed that nothing short of his ouster would get them off the streets.
The agreement represents a remarkable, humiliating fall for Yanukovych, whose decision to turn away from closer ties with the European Union and toward Russia sparked protests that began here peacefully in November but turned increasingly violent.
The atmosphere remained tense late Friday in Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests. When one of the opposition leaders, former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, told the crowds this was the best deal they could get, one of the protesters grabbed the microphone and demanded that Yanukovych resign Saturday morning or face the wrath of the people.
“We will go with weapons,” said the protester, who leads one of the more militant groups in the square. “I swear it.”
The pact, reached after Ukraine’s bloodiest week of street fighting, following all-night negotiations sponsored by European and Russian officials, calls for an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which gives parliament, not the president, the right to choose a prime minister and most of the cabinet.
The accord also called for authorities and the opposition to refrain from violence and withdraw from public spaces, and to return the country to normal life. Protesters were to turn illegal weapons over to police.
In a move that sparked a roar of approval from protesters barricaded in Independence Square, the Ukrainian parliament approved, by a veto-proof margin, a change in the law that could lead to the quick release of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko, a former two-term prime minister and a founder of the largest opposition party here, was sentenced to seven years in prison in August 2011 for embezzlement and abuse of power over a deal to purchase natural gas from Russia. Her supporters have called her trial and conviction politically motivated.
In a rush to stem the violence, the Ukrainian parliament also sacked the interior minister, citing his “systemic and gross violation” of Ukraine’s constitution for his orders to allow police to fire live rounds at protesters.
The ousted minister, Vitaliy Zakharchenko, who controls the nation’s riot police, said security forces who shot and killed protesters were acting within the law and protecting retreating police.
“When an outrage is committed in the state and when attacks on the people and looting are spreading, when people don’t know what to expect further, it is the people in uniform’s duty to protect their citizens,” Zakharchenko said before his removal.
Several Ukrainian outlets reported late Friday that Yanukovych had fled Kiev, the capital.
In Washington, a senior State Department official said the president is believed to have traveled to Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, for meetings. The official said that after major announcements or developments “it’s not unusual for him to go to the east, where his base is.”
The deal between the opposition and Yanukovych calls for presidential elections no later than December, instead of March 2015 as scheduled. Many protesters say December is too late – they want Yanukovych to resign immediately, and then face charges.
“I think people are preparing for the worst, for more to come,” said Sergiy, a geography teacher from Lviv who is volunteering as a medic in a makeshift triage center at the October Palace, and who like others interviewed Friday declined to give his last name.
Sergiy said that Yanukovych cannot be trusted to hold elections in 10 months and would use the time to fortify his position. The teacher said he also feared that opposition leaders were too ready to make a deal.
“We’re afraid the politicians – from both sides, yes, from the opposition, too – will cheat us again,” Sergiy said.
The total death toll from clashes reached 77, the Health Ministry said Friday, with 379 others hospitalized.