Agreement Signed In Ukraine: End to Violence May Be in Sight

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Ukraine has been in the midst of violent protests in Kiev, centered around Ukraine’s Maidan, the Independence Square in the heart of its capitol. The conflict has grown steadily more violent over the course of the last two months. In late January, three deaths connected to the protests highlighted the escalating government crisis and now, just within the last few days, opposition sources are quoting between 70 and 100 dead, while city officials say 39 have been killed.

Now, an agreement has been reached and signed by Ukraine’s President, Viktor Yanukovych, and by the three heads of major protest leaders; political party leader Vitali Klitschko from the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), leader of “Batkivshchyna,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk; and leader of “Svoboda,” Oleh Tiahnybok. The deal was overseen by EU representatives, including Federal Minister for Foreign Affiars of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and two others. Earlier today, EU President Jose Manuel Barroso tweeted his approval of the deal, saying that, “I welcome the agreement reached on a road map for a political resolution of the crisis.”

History of the Conflict

On Jaunuary 16, 2014, Ukraine’s Parliament (Rada) passed a series of un-democratic laws limiting freedom of protest and freedom of speech. The legislation contained measures that prohibited criticism of government officials, making libel a criminal offense, and severely limited the ability of citizens to protest; increasing punishments and making it so that nearly any sort of peaceful protest would be impossible under new laws.

It also made an enormous portion of civic organizations, and most NGOs are considered “foreign agents,” subject to a number of requirements and rules, according to Human Rights in Ukraine, part of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group. “Lest anybody be under any illusions about what this law is designed to prevent, ‘political actions’ are specified as those ‘which are aimed at influencing decision making by state bodies, a change in the state policy, which those bodies have defined, as well as forming public opinion for those purposes.” Due to the wording of the legislation, it would be possible for labels such as extremist material or extremist activities to be applied widely.

This legislation was quickly met with international criticism and condemnation. Just after the measures passed, Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, tweeted that he was “profoundly concerned by new legislation limiting freedoms, contradicting European aspiration” to commit itself to an accord with the European Union.

Russia’s Role

Protestors were also sparked to anger by the latter, with President Yanukovych’s government choosing to maintain and build on oil and gas trade agreements with Russia, who routes much of its exports through Ukraine rather than committing to a long sought association with the EU. Russia’s historical ties with Ukraine go back past Soviet times, making its influence on Ukraine significant.

Beyond the major issue of gas trade, Russia has also played a large role in Ukraine’s economic and fiscal security, with uncertainties as to whether or not it would be continuing to follow through on a temporarily frozen loan of $15 billion, being payed out incrementally. This led to something of a struggle for Ukraine through fiscal aid, with western powers not measuring up to Russia’s eventual decision, as of earlier this week, to continue to aid in its debt management.

President Barack Obama has spoken harshly of Russia’s role in both Ukraine and Russia, criticizing it’s involvement on Wednesday during his visit to Toluca, Mexico. “With respect to Syria and the Ukraine, I do think it is worth noting that you have in this situation one country that has clearly been a client state of Russia, another whose government is currently been supported by Russia; where the people obviously have a vary different view and vision for their country. And we’ve now seen a great deal of turmoil that arose organically from within those countries,” said Obama. He went on to say that he sees no “competition between the United States and Russia,” but says that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has a different view on issues surrounding basic freedoms, “and I don’t think that the’re any secret on that,” he said.

However, Russia did play a major role in the recent agreement with Vladimir Lukin, the Russian Federation’s special envoy credited by Poland’s Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, having aided in reaching the final agreement. Lukin, he said according to BBC, “in certain moments, as an experienced diplomat, effectively eased the negotiations.”

Details of the Agreement

Previous attempts at negotiations between Ukraine’s government and opposition groups proved highly unsuccessful, with protestors claiming that government and authorities had taken part in kidnapping, beatings and deaths of protestors. They claimed that the amnesty law pushed through by the government did not do enough to protect rights of protestors and that the eventual resignation of Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, and his cabinet was not enough. The government in turn blamed deaths on protest groups, claiming that extremist opposition groups were seeking to seize power through violence.

The agreement of February 21, 2014, according to Yanukovych’s released copy, organized for the Constitution of 2004 to be restored within two days of the agreement’s signature, and for a national unity government to be created and put in place within 10 days. Further reform to the Ukrainian Constitution will begin and will be finished by September. The agreement also calls for President elections to be held as soon as the new Constitution is put into place, with a deadline of December of 2014. It guarantees that a state of emergency will not be called, that investigation into violence will be had with “monitoring from the authorities, the opposition, and the Council of Europe,” and that the balance of governmental powers between the president and other governing bodies will be included in the reform.

In turn, a withdrawal from the streets is required and “both parties will undertake serious efforts for the normalization of the life in the cities and villages.” The return of illegal weapons is required within 24 hours, after which point those still in possession will be subject to normal laws. Yanukovych released a statement saying, “I declare that I initiate early presidential elections,” and lamenting the recent loss of life.

Opposition and International Reaction

Reactions to the agreement have been largely positive, but with an emphasis on the importance of implementation for the deal to be meaningful. “The agreement between the president and opposition leaders has been signed,” said Klitschko, head of the UDAR opposition, listing Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, and Poland as witnesses. “The most important points of the agreement are concerned, the first and main task is to stop bloodshed. Secondly, all detainees must be released and perpetrators of violence against people must be punished. We have to cease split of the country, speculations about federalization and recession sentiments must be stopped,” said Klitschko, going on to say that presidential power must be curtailed, that a balance of power is vital, and that protestors will be monitoring progress closely.

The United States welcomes the agreement signed today between Ukrainian President Yanukovych and Opposition leaders,” said the statement released by the White House Press Secretary today. It went on to praise the oppositon leaders for their compromise and to “call for immediate implementaiton of the initial steps — an end to the violence, amnesty, and security normaliziton, and passage of the constitutional package in the Rada,” offering the United State’s aid.

The EU’s High Representative, Catherine Ashton, released a statement echoing praise for the agreement, the need for implementation, and its offer to “lend full support.” This follows a decision made Thursday by the EU foreign ministers to put sanctions into effect “against those responsible for human rights violations, violence and the use of excessive force.” These sanctions place a freeze on assets and a ban on visas for those individuals perpetrating violence and rights violations in Ukraine. “Licenses for the export of equipment has also been frozen as well, in effect for those items that “might be used for internal repression,” reads the Council’s conclusion.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of one of the three big opposition groups, “Batkivshchyna,” admitted that the accord might not be entirely welcome to some protestors who desire Yanukovych’s immediate removal, but said that they would come to terms with it. “We need to explain, and we need to not only explain, we need to act. People will never trust any kind of signature. People will trust real action,” he said, in an interview with the New York Times.

One BBC reporter on the scene in Lviv, Mark Lowen, noted that regional reaction to the agreement would be crucial as well. “Any political deal between President Yanukovych and the opposition movement will have to pass the test here in Lviv. The mood here is one of defiance: that President Yanukoych must step down now. The pro-Western part of Ukraine is determined that its voice will be heard,” said Lowen.

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