Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Friday signed up to a trade and economic pact with the European Union, saying it may be the “most important day” for his country since it became independent from the Soviet Union.
It was the decision of his pro-Moscow predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, to back out of the same EU association agreement in November that touched off massive protests in Ukraine that eventually led to Yanukovych’s flight abroad, Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
Poroshenko said on Friday he will make a decision on extending a ceasefire in the east of the country when he returns to Kiev following the EU summit. But according to two EU diplomats, Poroshenko told the leaders of France and Germany he was proposing to extend the ceasefire by 72 hours, coinciding with the EU’s deadline for imposing new sanctions against Russia.
Before the signing ceremony, Poroshenko brandished a commemorative pen inscribed with the date of EU’s Vilnius summit where Yanukovych balked at approving the agreement. “Historic events are unavoidable,” he said.
UKRAINE: CONFLICT HAS FORCED 110,000 TO FLEE COUNTRY
Some 110,000 Ukrainians have fled this year for Russia and another 54,000 have fled their homes but stayed in the country as Ukraine fights separatist rebels, the UN refugee agency said Friday.
Only 9,500 of those fleeing for Russia have sought refugee status but many others are too afraid of future reprisals if they do return to Ukraine to make a formal request, said agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming, citing official Russian figures and other U.N. information.
Another 750 Ukrainians have requested refugee status in Poland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Romania, according to UN figures.
The number of those internally displaced in Ukraine represents a huge increase since last week. Some 12,000 of them are from Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March, and the rest are from eastern Ukraine.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a diplomatic ceremony in the Kremlin that violence has forced tens of thousands of Ukrainians to seek refuge, including in Russia. Putin also called for a long-term ceasefire in Ukraine to allow talks between representatives of Kiev and eastern regions where rebels are waging an armed insurgency.
EUROPE: WHAT THE EU DEAL MEANS
At Friday’s proceedings, the European Union signed similar association agreements with two other former Soviet republics, Moldova and Georgia.
Businesses in the three countries whose goods and practices meet EU standards will be able to trade freely in any of the EU’s 28 member nations without tariffs or restrictions. Likewise, EU goods and services will be able to sell more easily and cheaply to businesses and consumers in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
“It’s absolutely a new perspective for my country,” Poroshenko said.
European Commission experts estimate implementation of the deal is expected to boost Ukraine’s national income by around 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) a year. Perhaps more important than the trade clauses is an accompanying 10-year plan for Ukraine to adopt EU product regulations. Such rules ease the way for international trade beyond Europe.
RUSSIA: MOSCOW RESERVES RIGHT TO ACT
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that the Kremlin would respond to the EU-Ukraine accord “as soon as negative consequences arise for the economy.”
But Peskov dismissed the threat of immediate action against Poroshenko’s government. “In order for those (consequences) to arise, the signed agreement needs to be implemented,” he said.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy insisted that “there is nothing in these agreements or in the European Union’s approach that might harm Russia in any way.”
Russia has previously imposed trade embargoes against its neighbours in response to political or economic moves that the Kremlin views as unfavourable.
Follow us on Twitter: