September 16, 2014
Sydney Morning Herald
Ukrainian president offers rebels major concessions to end uprising
Kiev: Ukraine is ready to ratify a disputed EU agreement, while President Petro Poroshenko has pledged a series of major concessions to end the uprising by pro-Russian rebels in restive eastern Ukraine, offering the separatists a broad amnesty and special self-governance status for territories they occupy.
Legislators in the Ukrainian and European parliaments are scheduled to sign the 1200-page political and economic association agreement during a live video hook-up that begins at 1000 GMT (8pm AEST).
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 deal by Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in November triggered the bloody chain of events that led to his February ousting and Russia's subsequent seizure of Ukraine's "Crimea peninsula".
The defiant decision by Kiev's new pro-Western leaders to still strike the EU deal saw Moscow cut off its neighbour's supply of Russian gas and allegedly orchestrate a separatist revolt in the Russian-speaking east that has now claimed more than 2700 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 five-month crisis may at last be abating and allowing East-West tensions to mend.
In the latest diplomatic sortie, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed, during a phone call with Putin on Monday, the importance of a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
Merkel was clear that such a troop pull-out and proper control of the Ukraine-Russia border "are key elements to a durable solution to the conflict," a German government statement said.
In the east, the fragile truce has been shaken in recent days by escalating violence. Ukraine accused the rebels on Monday of having attacked checkpoints and other positions in intensified fighting over the weekend. The Ukrainian military, he said, was forced to respond.
For their part, the rebels charged on their website that Ukraine had "repeatedly violated the ceasefire." They said the Ukrainian military fired on separatist militias as well as residential targets in Donetsk, killing 20 people.
Poroshenko still intends to submit to parliament on Tuesday a peace package that offers three years of limited self-rule to parts of the rebel-held territory.
Poroshenko's proposal also includes protections for the Russian language and would allow the separatist-controlled regions to elect their own judges, create their own police forces and cultivate deeper ties to Russia - while remaining part of Ukraine.
"There is nothing more important for us than peace," Poroshenko told Ukrainian political leaders Monday. "These are the key positions that will ensure it."
The Ukrainian leader argued just 101 days into his presidency on Monday that his plan offers Kiev the best way out of crisis because it guarantees "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of our state".
Parliament is now dominated by government supporters and the measures are likely to pass.
But some political leaders and especially members of right wing groups that played a small but instrumental role in protests that forced out the old regime have questioned whether Poroshenko is ceding too much to Moscow.
Snap local polls on November 9 will establish new councils in the areas in Ukraine's vital coal and steel belt that will seemingly not be accountable to Kiev in any way.
Amnesty International has accused fighters on both sides of abuses that might be classified as war crimes.