KIEV (AFP) – Ukraine was set Tuesday to ratify a landmark EU pact at the heart of the country’s deadliest crisis as the government pushed its plans for limited self-rule in the pro-Russian east.
But renewed clashes that killed four civilians Monday heaped further pressure on a fragile truce in the bloody five-month war and raised new questions about whether President Petro Poroshenko will succeed in keeping his splintered country together.
Lawmakers in the Ukrainian and European parliaments are set to sign the 1,200-page political and economic association agreement during a live video hookup that begins 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 EU 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 agreement saw Moscow cut off its neighbour’s supply of Russian gas and allegedly orchestrate a separatist revolt 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 crisis may at last be abating and allowing East-West tensions to mend.
Insurgency leaders and officials in Kiev have traded blame daily for who was responsible for repeatedly breaking the ceasefire.
Reporters and European monitors on the ground are also rarely able to tell where the sporadic shelling and gunfire originates.
Local authorities said three civilians were killed in separate shelling incidents in Donetsk and another in the neighbouring village of Makiivka – bringing the total number to 10 in two days.
An unconfirmed number of Ukrainian soldiers were also killed Monday in a new rebel advance toward the long-shuttered Donetsk airport that had been one of the war’s main flashpoints since Poroshenko’s election at the end of May.
Despite the violence, Poroshenko on Tuesday submitted to parliament 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 Monday that his plan offers Kiev the best way out of crisis because it guarantees “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of our state”.