September 26, 2014 / 8:11 AM / 3 years ago

Ukraine president sets 2020 as EU target date, defends peace plan

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko speaks to the media during a news conference in Kiev, September 25, 2014. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

KIEV (Reuters) - President Petro Poroshenko proclaimed reforms on Thursday spanning all aspects of life to make strife-torn Ukraine fit for European Union membership, warning his people that without reform they would face a future “alone with Russia.”

He also defended his plan to end a war with pro-Russian separatists that has killed more than 3,000 people and said he would meet again soon with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the pivotal player in a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s future reminiscent of the old Cold War.

Kiev and Western governments say it was direct Russian military intervention that tipped the battlefield balance in favour of rebels in eastern Ukraine and forced Poroshenko to call a ceasefire on Sept. 5 after big losses by government forces.

Russia, which opposes the pro-Western course of leadership in its fellow ex-Soviet republic, denies its troops have taken part in the war or provided arms to the rebels despite what Western governments and Kiev say is incontrovertible proof.

Poroshenko sought on Thursday to fix his people’s attention on joining the European mainstream despite fierce Russian opposition. He laid out an ambitious reform package to enable Ukraine to apply in 2020 for accession to the 28-member EU.

Russia also steadfastly opposes Ukraine, a nation of some 46 million people, ever joining NATO. Both the 28-nation EU and NATO have said they have no plans to offer membership to Kiev.

The proposed reform package, Poroshenko said, would touch all walks of life and particularly aim to root out the endemic corruption that has warped Ukrainian public life since independence in 1991 and peaked under Poroshenko’s ousted predecessor, the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich.

Decentralisation and stronger law enforcement would also be important ingredients of the reform drive, he said.

“The whole state machine is geared today towards corrupt interests. Reform today can not overcome the bureaucrats,” Poroshenko told a news conference in the capital Kiev.

Resisting reform, he implied, would only play into the hands of Russia, Ukraine’s key supplier of energy which threatened Kiev with retaliatory trade measures if it enacted a political and trade pact with the EU. Parliament ratified it on Sept. 16.

“The aim of our ambitious reform is to achieve European standards of living and in the year 2020 make our application for EU membership,” Poroshenko, a confectionary magnate, said. “The alternative is to remain alone with Russia.”

BIRTHDAY BOY

The president, who will turn 49 on Friday, seemed in buoyant mood even though many inside the pro-Western establishment fear that his peace formula, by offering limited self-rule to the separatists for three years, could spawn a permanent zone of instability threatening Ukraine’s hopes of EU integration.

Earlier, he told the Ukrainian judiciary that for the first time in many months there had not been a single person killed or wounded in the past 24 hours, something indicating that his peace plan was bearing fruit.

At the same time, though, he said neither he “nor the rest of the world” would recognise the validity of local elections called by the separatists in the east for early November and he hoped Russia would not either.

His peace plan envisages local elections in separatist-held areas in December under Kiev’s supervision, though the rebels say they want no part of anything organised from Kiev.

Poroshenko, who has seen Putin in person only twice since the separatist revolt erupted in April, said he would meet him again in Europe somewhere over the next three weeks “in a multilateral format”. He gave no further details.

The Ukrainian leader said that Kiev however would be seeking further financial help from the West and global lending institutions to help its economy survive a war that it says has cost $6 million a day.

Poroshenko pledged to do all he could to protect Ukraine’s hryvnia currency, which has lost 40 percent of its value due to the upheaval. He said Kiev would seek a review of the present $17 billion loan programme with the International Monetary Fund.

Ukraine also required 1 billion euros of extra macro-financial aid from the EU and a further $1 billion in financial guarantees from the United States, he said.

After Yanukovich fled to Russia in February in the face of mass street protests, Moscow denounced a pro-Western “coup” against him, annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and subsequently backed the armed separatists in the heavily industrialised east in their drive for independence from Kiev.

The chain of events has provoked the worst crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War. The United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions against Russia and Moscow has lashed back with its own measures.

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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