NEW: Separatist leader says rebels will not agree to disarm in return for amnesty
Accord between Ukrainian, European parliaments will bring closer political, economic ties
Ukraine's lawmakers also approve "special status" law for rebel-held areas in the east
Amnesty will not apply to those suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
Ukraine and the European Union ratified a political and economic agreement Tuesday in a step leaders hailed as a “historic moment.”
The EU Association Agreement includes free-trade provisions, although they will not come into force until January 1, 2016.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to drop the agreement last year in favor of closer ties with Moscow triggered the popular unrest that led to his ouster, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and months of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European lawmakers backed ratification in a vote in Strasbourg, France, while Ukraine’s parliament voted at the same time in Kiev to approve the deal.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted afterward, “355 votes for. EU Association Agreement has been ratified. Glory to Ukraine!”
Addressing his parliament before the vote, he said the Ukrainian people had “reversed the express train going East” toward Russia and thanked the EU for its support.
“This is an historic moment,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz told EU lawmakers.
Ukraine’s parliament also voted Tuesday in favor of legislation that would give “special status” to rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions and grant amnesty to the separatists.
A shaky ceasefire is in place between the pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces who have been battling for control of the region.
The “special status” legislation applies only to the area of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions currently under the control of the separatists, according to the Ukrainian parliament’s official website.
The granting of amnesty will apply only after the separatists have given up their weapons, handed over all those being held hostage and ended their occupation of public buildings, according to the legislation. This, in effect, means disarmament must take place before criminal cases are dropped.
The amnesty will not apply to those suspected of carrying out the July shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board the plane died.
Rebels reject disarmament
However, Andrey Purgin, the first deputy Prime Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told CNN that the Ukrainian government in Kiev can forget about disarmament in exchange for amnesty.
“It will never happen,” he said in a phone conversation.
Purgin said the Donetsk rebel leadership considered the special status legislation as no more than a basis for future negotiations with Kiev, and felt under no obligation to accept its initiatives because it does not consider itself part of Ukraine.
“This was a decision of the Ukrainian parliament, not of our parliament,” he said, adding, “This law will not stop the fighting.”
Purgin also said the legislation marked a step forward in one sense because it represented a partial acceptance by Kiev of the existence of the Donetsk People’s Republic, whereas previously the rebels had been simply dismissed as terrorists.
Under the new legislation, a vote for local deputies will take place on December 7, and a new “people’s police force” will be created in that area.
Also among the powers being granted are the right to use the Russian language rather than Ukrainian in all areas of public life, including public institutions, courts and education. Local authorities will take part in the appointment of prosecutors and judges, rather than the decision being solely in the hands of government in Kiev.
There are many Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, which historically has had close ties to Russia.
U.S. envoy: Road map to democracy
Moscow has made clear that it is opposed to Ukraine’s pivot toward the West.
But Western leaders – who accuse Moscow of sending troops and military equipment over the border into Ukraine to help the pro-Russia rebels – have welcomed the move.
The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, said via Twitter that the ratification of the Association Agreement would provide a road map “for building a prosperous, European democracy, grounded in rule of law/anti-corruption.”
The decision to delay implementation of the free trade part of the agreement for more than a year followed talks Friday between representatives of the EU, Ukraine and Russia, the Kremlin said.
The EU and United States have imposed economic sanctions against Russian interests over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 European and American forces are engaged in training exercises this week in western Ukraine, far from the Russian border.
The speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, Sergey Naryshkin, opened a new autumn session Tuesday in which he warned that “the updated version of the Cold War is becoming a reality nowadays.”
He was critical of NATO, which has voiced its clear support for Ukraine, although the country is not a member of the defense bloc.
“By supplying Kiev authorities with weapons, NATO countries would be meddling with Ukraine’s internal affairs and aiding in war crimes,” he said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said Tuesday the deployment of “a full-scale, self-sufficient” military force in Crimea was a priority in light of current events in Ukraine, state news agency Itar-Tass reported.
NATO issued a statement Tuesday condemning elections reportedly held in Crimea on Sunday.
“We continue to condemn Russia’s illegal and illegitimate ‘annexation’ of Crimea and its continued and deliberate destabilization of eastern Ukraine in violation of international law,” NATO said.
“We stand united in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.”
Pro-Russian Rebels release captive Ukranian troops
CNN’s Andrew Carey reported from Lviv, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN’s Carol Jordan and Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report, as did journalist Azad Safarov.