Ukraine ratifies landmark agreement with European Union
Parliament also passes legislation to grant autonomy to rebellious east as part of peace deal
Ukraine's parliament ratified an agreement to deepen economic and political ties with the European Union on Tuesday, and passed legislation to grant autonomy to the rebellious east as part of a peace deal.
The ratification vote, draws a line under the issue that last year sparked Ukraine's crisis, which resulted in the ousting of the president, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and a war with the Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 3,000 people.
The ratification vote in Kyiv, synchronized with the European parliament by video chat, was met with a standing ovation, and members of parliament leapt to their feet to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. In a speech to legislators, President Petro Poroshenko called the vote a "first but very decisive step" toward bringing Ukraine fully into the European Union.
Poroshenko also said that those who died during the protests and during fighting in the east "gave up their lives so that we could take a dignified place among the European family."
"Since World War II, not a single nation has paid such a high price for their right to be European," he said.
In Brussels, EU lawmakers overwhelmingly ratified the agreement.
"The message this sends could not be clearer: the European Parliament supports Ukraine in its European vocation," said Martin Schulz, the president of the EU Parliament. "The European Parliament will continue defending a united and sovereign Ukraine," he said.
Greater autonomy for rebellious east
In stark contrast to that fanfare, parliament went behind closed doors earlier in the day to approve two bills granting greater autonomy to rebellious regions in the east, as well as amnesty for many of those involved in the fighting.
A separate bill called for amnesty for those involved in the eastern conflict, although the law does not cover those who are suspected or charged with several dozen crimes including murder, sabotage, rape, kidnapping, and terrorism. The law also does not grant amnesty to those who have attempted to kill Ukrainian law enforcement officials and servicemen — meaning that most of the separatists, who have waged war for five months on government forces, would not fall under amnesty.
The two bills are part of a peace agreement that called for the implementation of a ceasefire in the region on Sept. 5. But the legislators' decision to hold a closed-door session — an anomaly in Ukrainian parliament — underscores the political challenges of allowing greater autonomy for the east. Many in Ukraine fear that Russia will use decentralization to bolster its influence in the region and further destabilize Ukraine.
Rebel commander Alexander Zakharchenko told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that the separatist leadership would study the measures, an unusually conciliatory statement compared to the rebels' previous claims that they aim for complete independence from Ukraine.
Though much lauded by the Ukrainian leadership, the ceasefire has been riddled by violations from the start. On Tuesday, the city council in Donetsk said three people and five wounded in shelling overnight. Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, said three Ukrainian servicemen were killed over the past day. Clashes continue in the area around the airport in Donetsk, the largest city under rebel control.
Shelving of agreement set rebellion in motion
The EU association agreement was long sought by Ukrainians who want their country to turn westward and out of Russia's sphere of influence. After then-President Viktor Yanukovych shelved the deal last year, protests broke out that eventually spiralled into violence and led to Yanukovych fleeing the country.
In the wake of that, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and a pro-Russia rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces in April launched a military operation to put down the rebellion, which it claims gets substantial support including troops and equipment from Russia.
Russia strongly opposed Ukraine's tilt toward the EU, hoping to bring the country into a Moscow-led trade bloc that would balance or compete with the EU. Ukrainians who sought closer ties with the Western bloc denounced the Russia-led trade bloc as an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union.
Moscow also feared that closer ties with the EU and the reduction of tariffs on Western goods would undermine Ukraine's demand for Russian goods and could allow the re-export to Russia of EU goods at lower prices.
In a significant concession to Russia, Ukraine and the EU agreed last week to delay the full reciprocal implementation of a reduced-tariff regime that is part of the agreement until at least 2016.
With files from Reuters