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Ukraine approves draft EU association agreement

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(KIEV) - The Ukrainian government on Wednesday approved a draft of an Association Agreement with the European Union, which would be Kiev's first step towards membership, ahead of its possible signing at a summit in November.

Kiev is hoping to sign the agreement at the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November, in a move which risks raising the temperature in relations with former Soviet master Moscow.

"Just now the text of the Association Agreement was approved," the Ukrainian government spokesman said after a cabinet meeting.

Before the crucial decision was made, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov stressed that "the agreement is a road map on the way to the country which most Ukrainians want to see".

Brussels has declared that it will sign an agreement if Kiev demonstrates progress in respecting the rule of law and reviewing the imprisonment of jailed Ukrainian opposition leader and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Tymoshenko has insisted her seven-year sentence on abuse of power charges was ordered by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in a bid to eliminate a dangerous opponent from political life ahead of 2015 presidential polls.

Her detention has soured Kiev's relations with the EU and considerably delayed the signing of the Association Agreement.

In late August, Yanukovych in an interview said that an idea to send Tymoshenko abroad for treatment for back problems -- seen as a possible way out of the stalemate -- was still "on the agenda". But he said he did not have the legal authority to allow it.

But in turn, Tymoshenko said Monday that she "has not received from the Ukrainian authorities any formal proposal for treatment in Germany".

Signing the Association Agreement would open up EU markets for Ukrainian exports and mark a decisive turn towards the West, stoking concern in Moscow which considers Kiev to be firmly in its sphere of influence.

Despite intending to move closer to the EU, Ukraine wants to find out ways to continue cooperation with Russia and the Moscow-led Customs Union championed by President Vladimir Putin.

Azarov insists that the association agreement has no provisions that "would impede our plans to expand cooperation with the Customs Union... as well as with other partners outside the EU".

In the latest of a series of strained exchanges, Putin warned Kiev that Russia and its partners could not simply stand by if Ukraine opted for such an important political and trade tie-up with the EU.

Earlier Russian customs briefly introduced rigorous checks of all Ukrainian imports in a move that a top Putin aide, Sergei Glazyev, publicly acknowledged was a warning to Kiev.

The European Union, in response to Moscow's actions, had said that it views any pressure by Russia against Ukraine as "unacceptable".

The EU ambassador to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, said after the draft was agreed by the Ukrainian government he was confident the document would be signed in November in Vilnius and there was no danger of these plans collapsing.

"I do not see such a threat from the EU and do not see (such a threat), after today's decision, and on the part of Ukraine," he said.

EU relations with Ukraine

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