Ukraine deal offers an end to unrest

February 21, 2014 

One hallmark of the ancient Olympics was an Olympic truce. It ensured that athletes and spectators could travel safely to the Olympic Games and that the host city could focus on its duties without fear of attack.

There have been calls to revive the truce in recent years, but that remains more hoped for than realized. Yet in a curious way, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, might have kept the protests in Ukraine from spiraling into a civil war.

Ukraine, a fledgling democracy only 22 years removed from being a Soviet republic, is split between Ukrainians who desire to join Europe and those who feel a kinship with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man nostalgic for the Soviet Union and comfortable with its oppressive tactics, is trying to draw Ukraine and its 46 million people back into the Russian sphere. Ukraine President Viktor F. Yanukovych has served Putin’s ambitions by steering his country into economic agreements with Russia and deciding not to complete political and free-trade agreements with the European Union that he had agreed to sign.

Yanukovych’s actions triggered protests around Ukraine and a major standoff between protesters and the government in Kiev, the capital. The Kiev protest flared into violence Thursday with scores of protesters killed, many by government snipers. The national and international condemnation of the carnage forced Yanukovych to agree to a deal Friday that will speed up elections and diminish his power. It also prompted the Parliament to grant amnesty to all protesters and opened the way for the release from prison of Yanukovych’s strongest opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

President Obama effectively walked a fine line as he avoided having the United States drawn into the protests while the United States and European nations pressured the Ukraine government with the threat of sanctions.

Some protesters say the government’s concessions are not enough, and they are holding out for Yanukovych’s resignation. But the protesters would be wise to take this agreement as a victory. If they take a hard line, they may end up facing far harsher measures incited by Russian meddling.

Putin’s desire for a crackdown in Ukraine has been blocked by his need to show a peaceful face to the world as Russia hosts the Winter Olympics. Once the games are over and the world’s eyes turn from Russia, Putin will get back to the kind of belligerence he much prefers to politely applauding figure skaters.

The Olympic truce, however contrived, has provided Ukraine a window of time in which to resolve its divisions on its own. The protesters and their supporters in the Parliament should seize the chance for amnesty, elections and restraints on Yanukovych.

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