Ukraine to ratify EU pact, offer rebels self-rule

September 16, 2014

Kiev (AFP) – Ukraine is set to ratify a disputed EU agreement and offer limited self-rule to parts of the separatist east as it moves to turn the page on the bloodiest chapter of its post-Soviet history.

Lawmakers in the Ukrainian and European parliaments are scheduled to sign the 1,200-page political and economic association agreement during a live video hookup that begins on Tuesday, at 1000 GMT.

But the historic occasion has been muted by the two sides’ decision to bow to Russian pressure and delay until 2016 applying the free trade rules that pulled Ukraine out of a rival union being built by the Kremlin.

The rejection of the same deal by Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in November triggered the bloody chain of events that led to his February ouster and Russia’s subsequent seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

The defiant decision by Kiev’s new pro-Western leaders to still strike the EU deal saw Moscow cut off its neighbour’s supply of Russian gas and allegedly orchestrate a separatist revolt in the Russian-speaking east that has now claimed more than 2,700 lives.

Russia’s denials of involvement have not spared it from waves of punishing Western sanctions that have left President Vladimir Putin more isolated and acting less predictably than at any stage of his dominant 15-year reign.

But a European-mediated truce Kiev and Moscow clinched on September 5 has offered the first significant glimmer of hope that the five-month crisis may at last be abating and allowing East-West tensions to mend.

In the latest diplomatic sortie, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed, during a phone call with Putin Monday, the importance of a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

Merkel was clear that such a troop pull-out and proper control of the Ukraine-Russia border “are key eleements to a durable solution to the conflict,” a German government statement said.

- Three years of self-rule -

The ceasefire has been repeatedly broken, with six civilians and an unconfirmed number of soldiers killed in a new rebel advance towards the airport near their main eastern stronghold of Donetsk.

Poroshenko still intends to submit to parliament Tuesday a peace package that offers three years of limited self-rule to parts of the rebel-held territory.

It also crucially guarantees the right for Russian to be spoken in all state institutions — a particularly sensitive issue in the war zone.

The Ukrainian leader argued just 101 days into his presidency Monday that his plan offers Kiev the best way out of crisis because it guarantees “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of our state”.

Parliament is now dominated by government supporters and the measures are likely to pass.

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

Media accounts of the broad-ranging proposal say it allows local legislatures to set up their own police forces and name judges and prosectors.

Snap local polls on November 9 will establish new councils in the areas in Ukraine’s vital coal and steel belt that will seemingly not be accountable to Kiev in any way.

The measures also reportedly protect from criminal prosecution “participants of events in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions” — a measure that appears to apply to both the insurgents and Ukrainian government troops.

Amnesty International has accused fighters on both sides of abuses that might be classified as war crimes.

- Bloodiest day since truce -

Yet the broader autonomy offer appears to have done little to sate insurgency leaders who want membership in Novorossiya — a charged term Putin uses to describe a tsarist Russia that incorporated parts of Ukraine.

“The government in Kiev is only using the ceasefire to regroup its forces and attack us again,” the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic leader Alexander Zakharchenko said.

Local authorities said six civilians were killed Sunday when shells fell on a market near the long-shuttered Donetsk airport that had been one of the war’s main flashpoints since Poroshenko’s election at the end of May.

Six monitors from the OSCE pan-European security body also reported coming under fire Sunday after visiting the site where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed after being shot out of the sky with 298 people on board in July.

Western allies kept up the pressure by launching more than a week of US-led NATO war games in western Ukraine on Monday that are meant to send a blunt message to Russia about having any thoughts of pushing its troops deeper into the former Soviet state.

Russia has tens of thousands of soldiers in Crimea but denies NATO charges it sent more than 1,000 elite forces to help the militias launch a surprise counter-offensive at the end of last month.

Related Video:

  • Politics & Government
  • Unrest, Conflicts & War
  • Ukraine
  • President Vladimir Putin
  • Kiev

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