KIEV — A breakthrough peace deal for Ukraine halted two days of violence that had turned the center of the capital into a war zone and killed 77 people, bringing sweeping political change that met many demands of the pro-European opposition.
Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich agreed to give up powers, hold early elections and form a government of national unity. Parliament voted for changes to the legal code that could see the release of Yanukovich’s jailed rival, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
By nightfall, opposition leaders who signed the deal were addressing peaceful crowds from a stage in Independence Square, which for the previous 48 hours had been an inferno of blazing barricades and protesters were shot dead by police snipers.
Although the flames were out, the crowd was still defiant, holding aloft open coffins of slain demonstrators and making speeches denouncing the opposition leaders for shaking hands with Yanukovich.
The Ukraine crisis began with protests in November after Yanukovich turned his back on a far-reaching economic deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia instead.
If it holds, the deal hammered out with the mediation efforts of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, would mark a victory for Europe in a tug-of-war with Moscow for influence in the divided ex-Soviet state of 46 million people.
But it remains to be seen whether violence can be halted and whether a lurch away from Moscow will cost Ukraine a $15 billion Russian financial lifeline it needs to stave off bankruptcy.
“There are no steps that we should not take to restore peace in Ukraine,” Yanukovich said in announcing his concessions before the agreement was signed. “I announce that I am initiating early elections.”
Within hours, parliament voted to revert to a previous constitution slashing Yanukovich’s powers, sacked his interior minister blamed for this week’s bloodshed and paved the way for Tymoshenko’s release.
EU leaders and the White House praised the deal but Moscow made grudging comments that fell short of endorsing it. The European foreign ministers signed the document as witnesses, but a Russian envoy did not.
The envoy, Vladimir Lukin, acknowledged Moscow had fallen behind the EU in diplomacy: “The EU representatives were in their own way trying to be useful, they started the talks.
“We joined the talks later, which wasn’t very right. One should have agreed on the format of the talks right from the start,” Lukin was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Yanukovich, 63, a burly former Soviet regional transport official with two convictions for assault, did not smile during a signing ceremony at the presidential headquarters. Opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko, a retired world boxing champion, switched his nameplate to avoid sitting next to the president.