Ukraine ratifies landmark EU pact, offers self-rule in east

16th September 2014, Comments 0 comments

Ukrainian lawmakers on Tuesday ratified a landmark EU pact and adopted laws granting self-rule to the east in crucial votes that will shape the future of the splintered former Soviet state.

But Russia signalled it had no intention of backing down in the most serious East-West standoff since the Cold War, announcing it plans to boost its troop presence in annexed Crimea.

The European and Ukrainian parliaments held simultaneous votes to approve the political and economic association agreement whose rejection by the former government triggered the country's worst crisis since independence in 1991.

Lawmakers in Kiev also voted to grant self-rule in eastern regions under the control of pro-Russian rebels and offer amnesty to fighters under a peace plan drawn up 11 days ago to halt the bloody five-month conflict.

Insurgent leaders reacted cautiously to the moves, although they insist they want nothing less than full independence.

Poroshenko said the adoption of the 1,200-page EU deal was Ukraine's first step towards membership of the 28-nation bloc.

The pact underscores Ukraine's strong westward push just as Poroshenko heads to Washington for crunch talks with US President Barack Obama on Thursday.

- 'Blueprint for transformation' -

"Tell me, who will now dare to shut Ukraine's doors to Europe?" Poroshenko said before the unanimous vote by all 355 MPs present.

"Who will be against our future membership of the EU, towards which today we are taking our first but very decisive step?"

EU leaders hailed it as a "blueprint for Ukraine's transformation into a modern and prosperous European democracy".

But the historic occasion was muted by a decision to delay until 2016 the implementation of a free trade deal, an apparent concession to the Kremlin.

The rejection of the broad EU pact by Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in November set off the bloody chain of events that led to his ouster in February, Russia's subsequent seizure of Crimea and the unleashing of the revolt in the east.

The conflict in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions has now killed almost 2,900 people and forced at least 600,000 from their homes, according to UN figures.

Russia's denials of involvement have not spared it from waves of punishing Western sanctions that have left President Vladimir Putin more isolated than at any stage of his 15-year rule.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said it was a "priority" to send reinforcements to the Black Sea peninsula because of what he described as the escalating Ukraine crisis and the buildup of foreign troops on its border.

It was not immediately clear what prompted his announcement, although US-led war games are currently being held in western Ukraine.

NATO earlier this month also unveiled plans to boost its forces in eastern Europe in response to Russia's "aggression".

Russia already has tens of thousands of soldiers in Crimea but denies NATO charges it sent more than 1,000 elite troops into eastern Ukraine to help the militias launch a surprise counter-offensive in August.

- Glimmer of hope -

The truce signed on September 5 has offered the first significant glimmer of hope that the crisis may be abating, although up to 30 civilians and servicemen have since been killed, most in shelling around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

Under the terms of the truce, lawmakers adopted "special status" legislation that offers three years of limited self-rule to the coal and steel belt known as the Donbass that generates a quarter of Ukraine's exports.

Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, responded by saying bluntly that Donbass "no longer has anything to do with Ukraine".

But he also said the rebels would "carefully study" the legislation, describing it as a "positive signal because it marks Kiev's return to reality".

Many in the east accuse the nationalist-leaning government of turning a blind eye to alleged persecution of members of the Russian-speaking population.

But some political leaders in Kiev and right-wing groups that played a small but instrumental role in the protests that forced out the old regime have also questioned whether Poroshenko is ceding too much to Moscow.

Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon who won a May election pledging to crush the rebellion, said he believed the legislation would bring about an end to the bloodshed and restore "peace and harmony".

- Amnesty for fighters -

The legislation calls for local polls in Donetsk and Lugansk in December and allows local legislatures to set up their own police forces and name judges and prosectors.

Crucially, it also guarantees the right for Russian to be used in all state institutions -- a particularly sensitive issue in the mainly Russian-speaking regions.

Another law also grants amnesty to both the insurgents and Ukrainian government forces over their actions during the conflict, although rights groups have accused both sides of abuses that could be considered war crimes.

© 2014 AFP

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