Ukraine local polls postponed to ensure 'undisputed' vote
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany agreed Friday to delay contentious local elections in Ukraine to ensure that they meet international standards, despite fighting having all but stopped in the country's separatist east.
Peace appears closer than ever in the 17-month conflict, which has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to post-Cold War lows, with the latest ceasefire called last month having largely been observed by both pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
However, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko warned at a summit in Paris that Russia still had "plenty of work to do" before economic sanctions that have bitten hard can be lifted.
Rival elections planned by Kiev and the Russia-backed rebel regions have also proved a major sticking point in implementing a peace deal agreed in Minsk in February.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the press after the summit, saying the leaders had agreed that a rebel vote planned in the east on October 18 could not go ahead.
"We don't want elections to take place in eastern Ukraine that do not respect the Minsk deal," Hollande said.
He said there was a need for "time to draw up a law, an electoral law that perfectly conforms" to international standards.
Hollande said that only 90 days after such a law is voted in could the planned local elections take place, meaning the Minsk deadline of December 31, 2015 for the vote had to be pushed back.
He said it was on the security front that the peace deal "has made the most progress", and added that light weapons would be withdrawn from the frontline in eastern Ukraine beginning on Saturday, in another step towards peace.
But in a blow to Poroshenko, Hollande called for "amnesty" and "immunity" for all election candidates, including the rebels.
- 'Positive development' -
After repeated violations of previous truces, the latest ceasefire has been strictly observed.
The warring sides this week agreed to withdraw weapons of less than a 100-millimetre calibre from a buffer zone between their forces beginning Saturday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman later hailed the start of the weapons withdrawal as a "positive development".
Hollande said the leaders had called for a similar process for the withdrawal of heavy weapons and for European monitors to be afforded "safe and free access across Ukrainian territory up to the border" with Russia.
The separatist rebels launched an uprising in March 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, seeking to similarly break away from Kiev after a pro-EU government took power there.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of covertly supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, a claim Moscow denies.
The rebels, who now seek greater autonomy within a united Ukraine, want to hold local elections on their own terms, which include barring all pro-Kiev candidates and holding the polls on separate days to those planned in the rest of Ukraine.
Friday's summit began in Paris with a series of one-on-one meetings between Putin and Hollande and Merkel that also focused on Russia's intervention in Syria, before they gathered for coffee on a sunny terrace of the Elysee Palace.
However there was still a discernible chill in the air over the conflict which has left more than 8,000 dead and risks being overshadowed by Russia's dramatic intervention in the Syrian war.
Ukrainian officials fear that by making himself an important player in Syria, Putin is hoping to leverage a better deal on Ukraine -- particularly an easing of sanctions.
Neither Merkel or Hollande touched on the issue of sanctions, which are due to be reviewed at the end of the year. It is unclear whether this would be delayed by the postponed local elections.
However Poroshenko said: "We went through each clause of the Minsk accords, and I can say that Russia still has plenty of work to do."
He said if the rebels refused to cancel their elections, the punishing measures could be "strengthened".
Poroshenko said: "The war will end when the last piece of Ukrainian land is freed."
© 2015 AFP