In key concession, Ukraine rebels delay polls until 2016

Yulia Silina and Olga Shylenko
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Ballot boxes are stored at a polling station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk

Ballot boxes are stored at a polling station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Ukraine's pro-Russian insurgents took a big step toward political reconciliation Tuesday by announcing they will push back disputed local elections into next year in line with Western demands.

The decision was welcomed by Kiev's pro-EU leadership and the Kremlin -- one of the few times the ex-Soviet neighbours have agreed on anything since the conflict erupted last year.

The European Union also called the concessionary move a "fundamental step" toward peace.

The change in rebel rhetoric coincided with the withdrawal of Ukrainian tanks from the demarcation line in one of the two separatist eastern industrial provinces.

The chief negotiators of the self-proclaimed "people's republics" said they had "agreed to postpone the (Donetsk) elections of October 18 and the (Lugansk) poll of November 1 until next year."

The announcement came just days after the leaders of Germany and France forced Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to sit down for direct negotiations in Paris aimed at saving a shaky truce in the 18-month war.

That meeting ended with French President Francois Hollande declaring that the rebels could not possibly organise internationally legitimate elections within such a short timeframe.

Poroshenko has also called the votes "fake" and demanded their cancellation.

- No new date set -

Ukrainian officials said Monday that Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had put strong pressure on Putin -- who denies any involvement in the fighting -- to convince the militia command to delay their vote.

"We examined the statements and recommendations of Merkel and Hollande that were issued after the summit," Donetsk negotiator Denis Pushilin and his Lugansk counterpart Vladislav Deinego said in the statement.

The two met Tuesday in the Belarussian capital Minsk -- the same location where Putin and Poroshenko agreed in February to find a way out of one of Europe's bloodiest conflicts since the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

The insurgents did not say when they now intended to hold their polls.

But they pressed a series of demands that will be tough for Poroshenko to push through a Ukrainian parliament where nationalist forces play an important role.

The two said their elections will be held only after Kiev assigns the rebel regions "special status" within a unified Ukraine that had the right to develop closer diplomatic and trade ties with Russia.

They also sought full immunity from prosecution "for all participants to events in the Donetsk and Lugansk region" and a new vote in the Ukrainian parliament on constitutional amendments regarding elections that would first be agreed with the rebels themselves.

The date of the rebels' vote is vital because it also determines when exactly Ukraine can regain full control of its porous eastern border with Russia -- a frontier Kiev accuses the Kremlin of using to arm the revolt.

Ukraine will still conduct its own local elections in Kiev-controlled territories on October 25.

The February deal says Russian forces and the militias are supposed to cede the 400-kilometre (250-mile) stretch of the border under their control a day after the polls are held.

But the rebels and Moscow argued that Ukraine would only regain its territorial integrity after Kiev followed through on all the commitments it made in February -- something Ukraine has failed to do.

- 'Delicate dance' -

The delay gives the warring sides time to find a political compromise that can put an end to fighting that has claimed more than 8,000 lives and driven 1.5 million from their homes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia welcomed the move.

"This is another example of the flexibility and constructive approach shown (by the rebels) as they try to implement the Minsk agreements," Peskov told Russia's Interfax news agency.

Poroshenko put a slightly different spin on the events.

"This opens the door for (the rebel regions) to return to Ukraine with the help of local elections that are conducted in line with the laws of Ukraine," Poroshenko said in a statement on Facebook.

But security sources and analysts in Kiev predicted plenty of political bargaining and grandstanding in the weeks ahead.

"We are witnessing a very delicate dance: the Europeans really want to see this all come to some sort of conclusion," a senior Ukrainian security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Meanwhile, we and the Russians are trying to blame each other for failing to implement Minsk," said the official. "This is a chain of a lengthy process."

Analyst Mykola Davydiuk of Kiev's Politika research centre added that "both sides will now be trying to save face and win as many concessions as they can."