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19th Jan 2020

Ukraine gives rebels 'special status', ratifies EU treaty

  • Poroshenko spoke to MEPs in Strasbourg by video-link (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Ukraine has granted semi-autonomy and amnesty to pro-Russia rebels, the same day as ratifying a strategic EU treaty.

Its parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, passed the rebel laws in a closed session on Tuesday (16 September) by 277 and 287 votes out of 450, respectively, a pro-Western MP, Andriy Shevchenko, said on Twitter.

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They give the separatist strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk, east Ukraine, limited self-rule, or “special status”, for the next three years.

The rebels will be allowed to create their own police forces and to build closer relations with Russian regions, with local elections in December to lend weight to the separatist leaders.

They also say rebels who did not commit egregious crimes, such as shooting down MH17, and who give up arms will not be prosecuted.

The measures are in line with the “Minsk protocol” - a Russia-Ukraine peace deal signed after Russia sent troops into east Ukraine in late August.

The new laws were passed with some 3,000 Russian troops still on Ukrainian territory, Ukraine’s defence ministry says.

They got a wary welcome from one separatist commander, Igor Plotnitsky, who told Russian media “we may say that a peaceful solution has received its first chance”.

But critics say they will create a frozen conflict designed to stop Ukraine from joining the EU or Nato.

They also risk harming Ukraine leader Petro Poroshenko’s popularity at a time when he is trying to push through pro-EU reforms.

Poroshenko told MPs on Tuesday the laws are in line with “complete and unconditional observance of the state's sovereignty, territorial integrity”.

But opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, whose party voted No, said they “legalise terrorism and the occupation of Ukraine”.

Halya Conyash, an analyst at KHPG, an NGO based in Kharkiv in north east Ukraine, accused the EU of railroarding Kiev into the deal so that Russia does not stop EU gas supplies.

The Rada and the European Parliament also on Tuesday ratified the EU association and free trade pacts.

The Rada passed it by 335 votes, with no one, even from the former regime’s pro-Russia MPs, saying No. The EU assembly passed it by 535 out of 751, with 127 against, mostly from far-right and far-left parties.

The two parliaments - which held a joint session by video-link - marked the event with a standing ovation and with a silent tribute to victims of the conflict.

“Today we leave behind the Soviet past and set out on the path of comprehensive reforms”, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said.

Shevchenko noted: “We could only dream of this during the endless three months of Maidan [the pro-EU revolution]. Proud to be Ukrainian”.

Kiev and Brussels were forced to defend a recent decision to suspend implementation of the trade pact until 2016, however.

Poroshenko said he will launch economic reforms “from the first minute” despite the suspension. He added that he did not change “a single paragraph, a single word” of the EU treaty despite Russian pressure.

EU officials said Russia would have crippled Ukraine with trade penalties if the pact entered into force now.

EU trade chief Karel De Gucht, who personally brokered the suspension with Moscow, told MEPs the deal “created the conditions for ratification today”.

“This is not just a political fact, it’s a legal fact, a juridical fact - you have the treaty [now]”, he said.

EU neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele noted that Ukraine asked for the suspension “because, in addition to the military threat and its potential escalation, we were also facing the threat of a full-scale economic and trade war [by Russia]".

He hit out at MEPs on the far-right and left, calling their pro-Russia views “populist … nonsense”.

Reeling off a list of international treaties violated by Russia when it invaded Ukraine, he said: “If someone here blames EU policy for the problems, then I don’t know how to follow their logic”.

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