Thousands of people took to the streets of Ukraine’s capital on Sunday to protest against the president’s plan to hold a local election in the country’s rebel-held east.
Ukraine, Russia and Russia-backed separatists signed a tentative agreement on Tuesday on guidelines for holding a local election in eastern Ukraine, where a five-year conflict between the rebels and Ukrainian troops has killed more than 13,000 people.
France and Germany, who helped broker the talks, hailed the agreement which is seen by some as a major concession to Russia.
Ukraine’s newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has cast the deal as an intermediate step needed to organise a summit with the leaders of Russia, France and Germany to push for a peaceful settlement.
But participants in Sunday’s rally denounced the move as a capitulation to Russia, which has backed the separatists.
“Our soldiers have given their lives for a united Ukraine, and we don’t want peace at any cost on Russia’s conditions,” one of the demonstrators, Andriy Gnapko, said.
About 15,000 people, including veterans of fighting in the east, gathered on the Maidan, the main square in central Kiev, holding placards saying “Shame!” and “No to capitulation!”
Some of the participants later marched to the parliament building and presidential headquarters.
“Ukraine has been at war for five years, and I lost several of my friends, and they are now telling us that all of it was in vain,” soldier Ihor Roshchenko said.
“One man can rob us of our country with his ill-considered steps.”
Mr Zelenskiy, a comedian with no political experience, was elected by a landslide in April on promises to combat the country’s endemic corruption and end the spiralling war in the east.
He remains widely popular, even though his image has been dented by a July 25 phone call in which US President Donald Trump urged the Ukrainian leader to investigate the son of his Democratic rival, former vice president Joe Biden, a demand that has triggered a US impeachment inquiry.
Mr Zelenskiy strongly defended a plan for an election in the east, vowing that the vote would follow Ukrainian laws and include candidates from Ukrainian political parties.
He emphasised that the election should be preceded by a lasting ceasefire and an exchange of all prisoners.
Last month, Mr Zelenskiy initiated a prisoner exchange in which Ukraine and Russia freed 35 prisoners each — the biggest swap in years.
He is now pushing for a pullback of Ukrainian and separatist forces from the front line to end continuing skirmishes.
A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany provided for such withdrawal to set up a safe buffer zone, but both warring parties have failed to honour the demand.