UKRAINE and two other former Soviet republics have signed association agreements with the European Union despite Moscow warning of “serious consequences” and fighting still continuing in eastern Ukraine.
President Petro Poroshenko hailed the move as perhaps “the most important day since independence” as he and his counterparts from Georgia and Moldova signed agreements in Brussels.
Ukraine’s previous government’s decision to walk away from the association agreement at the 11th hour in November triggered a crisis that led to the flight of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich and to armed conflict in the east as government forces battle pro-Russia separatists.
“Ukraine has paid the highest possible price to make her European dreams come true,” said Mr Poroshenko, before asking the EU leaders to formally pledge to make Ukraine a full member.
“That would cost the European Union nothing, but would mean the world to my country,” he added.
The deal with Brussels allows the EU greater access to the markets of the ex-Soviet states but will also open up western European markets as long as the goods of the three countries comply with certain standards.
Many Ukrainians see the signing as much more than a free trade deal. To them, it symbolises their country embracing a future free of the corruption that has blighted Ukraine since independence, where the state upholds human rights.
Russia resents the deal, which it sees as weakening its hold over countries within its sphere of influence. Moscow has opposed any former Soviet republic signing up and used a mix of threats and economic pressure in attempts to get them to toe the Kremlin line. Reacting to the news of the signing, Grigory Karasin, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, warned of “serious consequences for Ukraine and Moldova”.
President Vladimir Putin claimed Ukraine had been “split” by the signing.
“The anti-constitutional coup in Kiev, the attempts to impose an artificial choice between Europe and Russia have pushed society to a split, to a painful internal confrontation.”
Mr Putin said in Moscow: “Ukraine must return to a path towards peace, dialogue and agreement. The main thing is to ensure a long-term ceasefire as a necessary condition for holding thorough negotiations between Kiev authorities and representatives of the south-east regions.
“We are sincerely trying to assist in the peace process.”
But the EU warned Moscow that Russia could face further sanctions if the pro-Russian rebels, who many believe have material support from Russia, fail to lessen the violence.
The EU signing ceremony came as tensions mounted in eastern Ukraine as a shaky ceasefire expired on Friday. Mr Poroshenko announced that he would try to extend the truce by 72 hours despite continuing bursts of fighting that have claimed the lives of four Ukrainian soldiers in the past two days.
An extended ceasefire would also give indirect negotiations between the government and rebels started earlier this month a chance to break the deadlock.