Ukraine’s government in Kyiv took steps today to quell the fighting in its eastern regions and to move forward with its Western-leaning foreign and economic policy. On the latter point, the parliament overwhelmingly approved the EU trade pact that started the Euromaidan uprising this winter and touched off the international crisis that is still playing out today. The free-trade part of the pact will not come into force for more than a year, however:
Ukraine and the European Union ratified a political and economic agreement Tuesday in a step leaders hailed as a “historic moment.”
The EU Association Agreement includes free-trade provisions, although they will not come into force until January 1, 2016.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to drop the agreement last year in favor of closer ties with
Moscow triggered the popular unrest that led to his ouster, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and months of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European lawmakers backed ratification in a vote in Strasbourg, France, while Ukraine’s parliament voted at the same time in Kiev to approve the deal.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted afterward, “355 votes for. EU Association Agreement has been ratified. Glory to Ukraine!”
The Ukrainian parliament may have cheered that vote, but another one took place in much quieter circumstances. Poroshenko won approval for two bills that will offer both more autonomy for the rebellious eastern provinces and amnesty for the rebels who have fought for independence from Kyiv. The bills would sustain Ukraine’s sovereignty, but allow for a much wider latitude for self-rule in the heavily Russian-speaking areas of the country currently under rebel control:
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.
One bill calls for three years of self-rule in parts of the war-torn east and calls for local elections in November. It grants concessions that were not offered in a presidential peace plan that was put forward in June, such as local oversight on court and prosecutor appointments and local control of police forces.
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 cease-fire 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.
The cease fire is mostly an illusion, as this AFP report demonstrates:
Initially, rebels rejected the amnesty and autonomy offers out of hand:
Andrei Purgin, a rebel leader in the eastern city of Donetsk, told AFP news agency that the eastern region “no longer has anything to do with Ukraine”.
“Ukraine is free to adopt any law it wants,” he is quoted as saying. “But we are not planning any federalism with Ukraine.”
Another rebel commander said the offer would get due consideration, however:
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.
In the meantime, though, Russia’s defense minister now wants a “full-scale” militarization of Crimea, and the Speaker of Russia’s Duma declared that a new Cold War had become a reality:
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergey Naryshkin, opened a new autumn session Tuesday in which he warned that “the updated version of the Cold War is becoming a reality nowadays.”
He was critical of NATO, which has voiced its clear support for Ukraine, although the country is not a member of the defense bloc.
“By supplying Kiev authorities with weapons, NATO countries would be meddling with Ukraine’s internal affairs and aiding in war crimes,” he said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said Tuesday the deployment of “a full-scale, self-sufficient” military force in Crimea was a priority in light of current events in Ukraine, state news agency Itar-Tass reported.
In other words, don’t expect this offer to stop the rebels or the Russians.