BRUSSELS: Ukraine’s new president signed an economic and political pact with the European Union Friday, pushing his troubled country closer into a European orbit over the protests of Russia, which warned of possible sanctions.
“What a great day!” a beaming President Petro Poroshenko said in Brussels. “Maybe the most important day for my country after independence” from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Russia has long been opposed to closer ties between Ukraine and the EU. Moscow is loath to see its historic influence wane in its strategic neighbor, which it considers the birthplace of Russian statehood and of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
“There will undoubtedly be serious consequences for Ukraine and Moldova’s signing,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said.
European Union leaders decided not to immediately impose new sanctions on Russia for destabilizing eastern Ukraine. But in a statement, they warned that new sanctions have been prepared so they could be levied “without delay” and listed several demands for Vladimir Putin’s government and the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko’s pro-Moscow predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, had backed out of signing the agreement in November, igniting the bloody protests that toppled his government in February. Tensions between Ukrainians in the west who want closer ties to Europe and those who favor traditional ties with Russia sparked an insurgency in the east and Russia’s annexation of the mainly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula in March.
In a speech, Poroshenko reminded EU leaders of the scores of Ukrainians who died opposing Yanukovych’s government and in the ongoing battle against the insurgency.
“[Ukraine] paid the highest possible price to make her European dreams come true,” he said, asking the leaders to take a further step and formally pledge that one day Ukraine can join the 28-nation bloc.
“[That] would cost the European Union nothing,” he said, “but would mean the world to my country.”
Agreements signed Friday let businesses in the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia trade freely in any of the EU’s nations without tariffs or restrictions as long as their goods and practices meet EU standards. Likewise, goods and services from the EU will be sold more easily and cheaply in the three countries.
Putin did not immediately comment on the trade pact but has signaled that he wants to de-escalate the conflict. Poroshenko began a unilateral cease-fire against the separatists a week ago that was to expire Friday.
“The most important thing is to guarantee a long-term cease-fire as a precondition for meaningful talks between the Kiev authorities and representatives of the southeast [of Ukraine],” Putin said Friday.
The weeklong cease-fire, which both sides accuse the other of violating, was set to expire at 10 p.m. but Poroshenko told a news conference he would decide later Friday whether to extend it.
The EU leaders gave the Russian government and rebels until Monday to take steps to improve the situation in eastern Ukraine, including agreeing on a way to verify the cease-fire, returning three border checkpoints to Ukraine, releasing all captives and launching “substantial negotiations” on Poroshenko’s peace plan.
Insurgent leader Alexander Borodai said the rebels were ready to extend a cease-fire and would soon release the European observers they have been holding for weeks.
He spoke after talks Friday in the eastern city of Donetsk involving a former Ukraine president, the Russian ambassador and an envoy from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Borodai, however, demanded Ukrainian troops withdraw from eastern Ukraine and rejected the EU demand to withdraw from the Ukrainian checkpoints on the border with Russia they have seized.
A rally was held at Kiev’s Independence Square, the site of the protests that toppled Yanukovych. A trickle of people filed by votive candles and portraits of the so-called “Heavenly Hundred,” the protesters killed – many by snipers – near the square in February.
Svetlana Kosenko, an 18-year-old student from Ukraine’s western regions, said she didn’t believe the country would change overnight.
“I think it will take a long time. As they say, hope dies last, and for now we hope things will be good.”
The U.N. said Friday that 110,000 Ukrainians had fled to Russia this year and another 54,000 fled their homes but stayed in Ukraine. Long lines of cars stuffed with belongings backed up at the border headed into Russia this week.