Ukraine and EU sign part of the Association Agreement

Today, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and Prime Minister of Ukraine Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed the political part of the Association Agreement. An Association Agreement is EU's main instrument to bring the countries in the Eastern Partnership closer to EU standards and norms. It comprises four general chapters: Common Foreign and Security Policy; Justice and Home Affairs; the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA); and a fourth chapter covering a range of issues including the environment, science, transportation, and education. The trade part of the EU accord, which is the bulk of the treaty, is to be signed after May.

By signing the Association Agreement Ukraine confirms its commitment to trade and interact with the EU. It is also a clear signal from the EU that Brussels remains committed to bringing former Soviet states into its orbit despite Russia's influence. The rejection of the Association Agreement by Viktor Yanukovych in November ignited months of protests in Ukraine and eventually led to the flight of Yanukovych.

Possible withdrawal Commonwealth of Independent States
Another development signals Ukraine’s anger with Russia. On 19 March Ukraine’s government decided to relinquish its chairmanship of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The foreign ministry added that it was also pondering a possible withdrawal from the bloc. If Ukraine would withdraw from CIS, it would be the first country to do so since Georgia’s withdrawal, following its 2008 war with Russia.

The CIS was founded in 1991 as a regional association of the former Soviet republics Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Reason for the relinquishing of chairmanship, as stated by Ukraine’s foreign ministry, is that some CIS countries do not adhere to their commitments concerning respect for the territorial integrity of each other, inviolability of borders and cooperation in ensuring international peace and security.

Update on Crimea
Meanwhile, the crisis in Crimea is yet to deescalate. Defying Ukrainian protests and Western sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty in Moscow on 18 March making Crimea part of Russia again. On the same day Ukrainian servicemen protecting one of the remaining Ukrainian bases in the main town of Simferopol on the peninsula came under attack. This attack resulted in the first death in Crimea from a military clash since Russia seized control in late February. Another reported death is of a civilian Crimean Tatar.

As of 10 March there are around 20,000 Russian soldiers to the territory of Crimea, and their numbers keep growing. Next to that, Russia stationed around 220,000 soldiers on the Russian side of the south-eastern borders of Ukraine and Crimea. Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman in Crimea said at least three Ukrainian warships docked at Sevastopol were captured by pro-Russian forces.

On 19 March Ukraine’s security chief Andriy Parubiy said that Ukraine is drawing up plans to withdraw its soldiers and their families from Crimea. He added that he wanted to move them "quickly and efficiently" to mainland Ukraine. Earlier, pro-Russian forces seized two naval bases - including Ukraine navy's HQ - in Crimea. Kiev says its navy chief has been detained by Russian forces. Around 200 pro-Russian activists were filmed going through offices of the navy’s HQ, removing Ukrainian insignia and replacing Ukraine's flag with the Russian tricolour. There were cheers from the crowd when Russia's Black Sea Fleet commander Aleksandr Vitko arrived and entered the building. A handful of Ukrainian servicemen have refused to surrender.

Yesterday, the Russian Parliament voted for ratification of the “Treaty on annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation and creation of new subjects”. 443 lawmakers voted for the decision, 1 lawmaker voted against. The one who voted against is Ilya Ponomarev. He agrees that Crimea is and should be Russian territory but he did not agree with the manner in which Russia took hold of the peninsula.

The US and the EU have further imposed sanctions on Russia. On the US sanctions list is also one institution: Rossiya bank. International payment systems, Visa and Mastercard, have now stopped serving clients of the Rossiya bank. The bank has around 10 billion USD on assets. Washington’s move is meant to put pressure on people they see as members of President Vladimir Putin’s “inner circle”.

By Merel Berkelmans

Sources: Radio Free Europe I, ITAR-TASS News AgencyLB.ua, Radio Free Europe IIBBC, Unian, Reuters

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