As part of Ukraine's convergence with the West, a free trade zone between the European Union and Ukraine will be launched in 2016, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has confirmed. "The free trade zone will be in place from Jan. 1 and nobody can cancel it. This is the final decision," Klimkin told the Ukrainian 1plus1 TV channel, as reported by Russian state-run Itar-Tass news agency. As the crisis continues in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government is strengthening cooperation with the EU and NATO to stop the Russian threat to its territory.
On June 27, 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed the economic part of an association agreement with the EU, describing it as the country's "first, but most decisive step" on its membership path. On Sept. 12, 2014, Russia, Ukraine and the EU agreed to suspend the establishment of a free trade zone between Ukraine and the EU. They also agreed to maintain until the end of 2015, the free trade regime in the Commonwealth of Independent States, consisting of former Soviet republics, which allows duty-free access of some Ukrainian goods to the EU market, while EU exports to Ukraine will still be subject to duties.
The new free trade agreement with the EU came after Ukraine's bid for NATO membership, which is likely to fuel tension with Russia. Ukraine accelerated its steps toward NATO membership by signing a memorandum under the Partnership for Peace program on April 9. Russia considers Ukraine's NATO membership a national security threat to its borders and its eastward expansion angers Russian authorities. Ukraine took a historic step on the path to NATO membership in December 2014. Considering Ukraine's renunciation of its neutral military and political status via steps to join NATO, Ukrainian parliament passed a law proposed by Poroshenko in a bid for NATO membership in December. The country's long-term, non-aligned status was renounced after 303 lawmakers out of a total of 450 backed the law.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine-NATO national yearlong cooperation program for 2015 was approved by Poroshenko to "ensure the protection of Ukraine's national interests and security under the conditions of Russia aggression in eastern Ukraine." NATO membership is seen as "an essential part of the European integration course," according to the president's press service.
Regarding Russia's continuing heavy military involvement in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of possible new attacks by pro-Russian separatist rebel groups in eastern Ukraine.
Since clashes erupted in eastern Ukraine, more than 2 million Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced due to worsening humanitarian conditions in rebel-held areas where heavy fighting has turned eastern Ukraine into a battle zone. According to U.N. figures, more than 6,000 people have been killed during heavy clashes between armed groups since the hostilities erupted in late March.
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