Ukrainian President announces concessions a day after dozens killed

Ukrainian President announces concessions a day after dozens killed
Chris Collison/iReport/CNN
Friday, February 21, 2014 - 7:29am

Ukraine's President has caved to the demands of protesters, pledging new elections, limits on presidential powers and the formation of a unity Cabinet.

It's what protesters have demanded for months in raging street demonstrations, but it may no longer satisfy them after protests this week ended in mass carnage that cost at least 77 lives.

The message to President Viktor Yanukovych from protesters at Kiev's Maidan, or Independence Square, which has been their movement's ground zero, has become consistent: Step down.

Yanukovych may have tried to give credibility to his concessions by putting his money where his mouth is. Ukraine canceled the sale of $2 billion in government bonds, the Irish Stock Exchange said.

Russia has been buying the bonds as part of an economic deal between the two countries that helped set off his opposition's fervor that fueled the demonstrations.

Diplomatic sources on Friday sent messages via Twitter that seemed to support Yanukovych's willingness to cut a major deal after holding overnight negotiations with the opposition brokered by the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted: "Together with (German Foreign Minister) F.W. Steinmeier on the way to meet Maidan activists to discuss the draft agreement."

The German Foreign Office confirmed the meeting.

Mixed messages

Yanukovych's critics have had reason to doubt his previous words Friday and in recent weeks.

Earlier in the day, he announced on his website that a deal had been reached to end the crisis.

But those earlier words were quickly contradicted by messages of caution from others -- and fresh gunfire.

Security forces opened fire on protesters who were firing on unarmed police, the Interior Ministry said. There was no mention of fatalities.

The government and the opposition will sign the agreement at noon, a presidential spokesman announced then.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius sent out a very different message on Twitter, saying that nothing definitive could be said before the morning was over. He urged caution.

Germany's Foreign Ministry echoed the tone in a tweet: "Very difficult negotiations throughout the night in #Kyiv (Kiev). Now a break to continue talks later on."

Noon came and went, and no deal was signed.

The President's announcement was followed by scuffles and loud arguments in Ukraine's parliament. It is unclear if his words had anything to do with the uproar.

Even after lawmakers were called to order and filed back into their seats, they did not appear to be in agreement. Finger-pointing and shouting filled the air.

Opposition leader and former world-class boxer Vitali Klitschko did not seem conciliatory.

"We must do everything to stop the confrontation, and the people who gave illegal orders will be brought to justice," he said.

He repeated demands made by the opposition for months: new elections and a return to the old constitution, which would limit some of Yanukovych's power and hand it to parliament.

Blood and doubt

If there is a deal, it will surely find its skeptics and its opponents, given past experience.

Previous talks ended with announcements that sounded good but ended in deadly disaster.

Twice in recent days, there have been concessions and a truce. But they have broken down into the heaviest bloodlettings seen in this standoff on Kiev's streets that has dragged on since November.

On Tuesday, violent clashes broke out after announced political concessions did not come through. At least 26 people died, protesters and police alike.

Late Wednesday, Yanukovych announced a truce.

But that night, the barricades that protesters set up and ignited to keep police at bay continued burning.

On Thursday, gunfire erupted as front-line protesters pursued police, who were withdrawing from Independence Square, and threw stones and Molotov cocktails at them.

If opposition medics' claims are correct, 100 protesters died that day.

Ukraine's Health Ministry put the toll much lower. It said that 77 people have died since clashes broke out Tuesday and that 577 people were injured; 369 of them hospitalized.

The Interior Ministry said Thursday that its forces used firearms, explaining that it did so only to protect unarmed police who were in danger.

But there have also been allegations that government snipers killed protesters. CNN has not been able to confirm these reports.

Ethnic conflict

The conflict in Ukraine runs down ethnic lines and is connected to long-standing loyalties beyond its borders.

Eastern regions are home to many people with Russian roots, who speak Russian. In the rest of country, it's largely people of Ukrainian heritage.

The population is divided between historic loyalties to Europe and to Ukraine's eastern neighbor, Russia.

The crisis started when Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.

The political strife has since ballooned well beyond that one issue, however, including the opposition's pressing constitutional reforms and a call to shift powers away from the president to parliament.

Russia has put pressure on Yanukovych to crack down on demonstrators, while Western leaders have urged him to show restraint, allow the opposition more access to government and let the democratic process work out deep political differences.

Both Russia and the West have backed up their positions with monetary threats. Russia has said it expects Ukraine to take a tough stance on protests before it pays out economic relief that it has offered to Kiev.

Washington and European leaders have threatened sanctions against Ukrainian officials over their part in the violence and imposed travel restrictions on them.

In an unrelated decision, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Ukraine, urging U.S. citizens to postpone travel there due to the violence.

-- CNN's Nick Paton Walsh, Phil Black, Andrew Carey, Alla Eshchenko and Todd Baxter reported from Kiev, CNN's Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN's Jessica King, Zahra Ulah, Mark Thompson and Greg Botelho also contributed to this report.

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