Ukraine Parliament’s Deal Leads to an Uneasy Peace

Ukraine's bloody crisis won a temporary reprieve with a momentous vote in Parliament that called for early elections. But neither the protesters camped in Kiev's Maidan square nor backers of the beleaguered President are happy

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Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Anti-government protesters guard barricades near Independence Square on February 21, 2014 in Kiev.

The cloak room in Ukraine’s parliament was not equipped to handle so many bullet proof vests. By lunch time on Friday, the racks began to sag under the weight of them all, as the lawmakers and journalists kept arriving in body armor. At last the attendant gave up, cleared some space on the floor and made a pile of Kevlar. “Just remember what yours looks like,” the nervous woman said.

But when the session was over, many of the lawmakers felt they didn’t need them anymore. The country they discovered upon leaving the parliament had been transformed. The revolution that began three months ago – and left at least 70 dead from gunshot wounds in the last two days – was all but over. The ruling party of President Viktor Yanukovych had capitulated to the revolutionaries on almost every front and, a bit like a fairytale prince in reverse, the President had become a lame duck.

The victory was so sudden for the revolutionaries and so complete that some of them seemed to forget the price they had paid in blood and bodies just the day before. Oleh Tyahnibok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda party, had been at the front lines of the revolution from the beginning. On Friday afternoon, he signed the peace deal that ended the civil conflict and set the stage for early elections. Sitting to his left at the signing ceremony was the President, pale beneath his pancake make-up as he put his name to his own political death certificate. At the same table were the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, who had flown to Kiev to broker the peace deal and sign it themselves. Conspicuously absent was the delegate from Russia, who flew in from Moscow on Friday but refused to have any part in the peace accord.

(PHOTOSProtesters Frolic In Ukrainian President’s Abandoned House)

The biggest losers in all of this, at least on the political scoreboard, were Yanukovych and his Russian allies. The biggest winner was Tyahnibok, who had risen in the course of three months from a marginal right-wing firebrand in parliament to a statesman at the table with European ministers. He had won out over the President and secured a role for himself in the future government. But at what price? On Thursday morning, when police opened fire on protesters in Kiev, sixteen members of his Svoboda party were among the dead, and the victorious smile left his face in the parliament building when he was reminded of this the following day. “No victory is worth the cost of human lives,” he told me.

Still, the victory seemed too substantial for the revolutionaries, or at least their political leaders, not to celebrate on Friday evening. In the course of two hours, the parliament voted unanimously to grant nearly all of the demands of the revolution. They voted to grant an amnesty to all protesters, even the ones who had thrown Molotov cocktails at police. They voted to fire the Minister who had given the command to shoot the protesters. They voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, the opposition leader who has been in prison since 2011. Most importantly, they voted to reform the constitution, stripping the President of his control over the political system and handing that control to the parliament. When that vote passed, the lawmakers stood up, put their hands on their hearts and sang the national anthem.

(MORE: Ukraine may free Tymoshenko.)

But half the chamber, the one filled with the President’s ruling Party of Regions, did not sing with as much gusto as the rest. By the end of the day, at least 28 members of the party had defected. “My mistake was that I didn’t quit sooner,” says one of them, Vitali Khomutynnik, a committee chairman and influential lawmaker from the President’s home region of Donetsk. “We should have acted sooner to stop the bloodshed.”

Indeed, behind the scenes of parliament, the blood of the protesters was the main argument used to force the ruling party to surrender. “We told them that if they don’t act now, there will be more blood, and it will all be on their hands,” says Inna Bogoslovskaya, who had quit the ruling party and joined the opposition when the uprising began in late November. “Now they’re finished,” she tells TIME. “They’re done.” It certainly seemed that way when the parliamentary session was over and the most vocal members of the ruling party ducked out of a side entrance, refusing to speak with reporters. Calls to their mobile phones went unanswered on Friday night.

But some of their peers were not ready to write them off quite yet. In the eastern regions of Ukraine, the President still enjoys large pockets of support, at least enough to secure his party a sizable minority in parliament. And he is no stranger to political comebacks. In 2004, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine already ousted him from power once, and he went on to win the presidency less than six years later.

“Don’t get too excited,” warns Vladimir Litvin, a former speaker of parliament who now heads a minority faction. “The opposition did not solve all of Ukraine’s problems today. What they did is take all the responsibility onto themselves.” The political leaders of the revolution now have to form a new government, which will be in charge of fixing an economy that is still on the verge of collapse. More urgently than that, they will have to convince the revolutionary masses that the struggle is over and that it’s time to go home.

That task proved impossible on Friday night, when most of the dead from this week’s clashes had not even been buried yet. So when Tyahnibok and the other political leaders of the revolt came to bring the good news, they were not greeted with cheers and pats on the back but with boos and whistles. Once they had gone, the crowd of many thousands began chanting their favorite slogan – Zeka, Het! – whose force doesn’t quite come through in the translation. It means, “Criminal, get out!” And it is a reference to the President. But under the deal hammered out on Friday, he will still be able to remain in his post until new elections are held later this year, and that fact proved untenable for many of the revolutionaries.

“The Maidan will not disperse,” said Stepan Kubiv, a member of parliament who has been coordinating the defense of the giant protest camp in the center of Kiev. “Not until the blood of the dead is atoned for.” That is a lofty goal. At the very least, it would require the the resignation of the President if not also a tribunal to dish out punishments for the murder of protesters. Neither demand was met as part of Friday’s deal.

So it was no surprise on that night when Pravy Sektor, the militant wing of the uprising, renounced the truce agreement and all the concessions passed in parliament. “We now take on responsibility for the continuation of the revolution in Ukraine,” Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of Pravy Sektor, told a crowd of reporters gathered on the square. “We will not stop until criminal regime is gone.” Earlier this month, when we met in his revolutionary headquarters, Yarosh told me that many of his several thousand fighters are armed, trained and ready to do whatever is necessary to avenge the deaths of their comrades.

About 20 of his troops were standing around near the entryway of the parliament building on Friday night, chatting and looking around, as the lawmakers and journalists filed out of the building. Just a few hours earlier, a small army of riot troops had been camped in that spot, burning barrel fires and waiting for another round of clashes to commence at any moment. But when word came down that the President had signed a truce, at least a thousand of the officers marched onto waiting buses and drove away to their barracks, leaving behind a field of steel barricades, tents, firewood and other martial trash.

The troops from Pravy Sektor then went on a reconnaissance mission to see what they could scavenge, mainly looking for things to reinforce their barricades around the Maidan square. One of them, a 24-year-old woman named Anastasia Manzhola, still wore a green army helmet and a policeman’s baton stuck into her backpack like a samurai sword. When she had heard the news of the ceasefire, she says, she was glad, even relieved, especially when the riot troops abandoned their positions in the center of Kiev. “But there is so much disinformation going around,” she told me, glancing around at the dark windows of the parliament building. “Folks are still saying there are snipers on the roof.” She didn’t know what to believe. In the coming months, some of her comrades were talking about turning Pravy Sektor into a political party and running in elections. “But I didn’t get into this for politics,” she said. “I’m a radical. I joined up to fight.” So whatever this truce turns into in the coming days and weeks, she is not yet ready to take off her bullet proof vest.