Presidential power slashed, rival released, elections planned: Changes come fast and furious in Ukraine
Darko Bandic, Associated Press
KIEV, Ukraine — In a fast-moving day that aimed to reshape Ukraine's political destiny, opposition leaders reached a deal Friday with the country's beleaguered president to form a new government and hold an early election, while parliament slashed his powers and voted to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison.
It was a crucial day in Ukraine's months-long standoff between President Viktor Yanukovych and protesters angry that he abandoned closer ties with Europe for a bailout deal last year with longtime ruler Russia.
If it holds, the ambitious 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.
It's unclear, however, how well the sweeping, European-mediated deal signed Friday would go down with all the sides involved in Ukraine's protracted political crisis. A Russian mediator refused to sign the deal, and a senior Russian lawmaker criticized it as being crafted for the West.
And at the sprawling protest encampment in central Kiev, hardened Ukrainian protesters angry over police violence showed no signs of abandoning their positions.
The agreement signed Friday says presidential elections will be held no later than December, instead of March 2015 as scheduled. 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 nation of 46 million that has divided loyalties between Russia and the West. 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.
They immediately started to use those new powers. The Verhovna Rada 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 after the vote.
However, Yanukovych must still sign that bill into law. It's not immediately clear when Tymoshenko might be released 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 the West has denounced as a political vendetta.
With Yanukovych's supporters quitting his party one after the other throughout the day Friday, legislators also approved an amnesty for protesters involved in violence.
Ukrainian authorities also 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, talking to the president and opposition.
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