Ukraine's parliament has adopted legislation granting "special status" to rebel-held parts of the country’s east and ratified a landmark accord on closer ties with the European Union.
The Verkhovna Rada on September 16 passed a law giving parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions broader autonomy for a three-year period, seeking to end a deadly conflict with pro-Russian separatists and keep the country of 45 million in one piece.
The law allows local authorities to set up their own police forces and name judges and prosecutors. It provides for snap elections on December 7 to establish new councils in certain districts of the region known broadly as the Donbas.
The broad-ranging political legislation also guarantees the right for Russian to be spoken in state institutions, and allows local authorities to strengthen relations with neighboring regions of Russia.
It promises to help restore damaged infrastructure and to provide social and economic assistance to areas particularly hard-hit by the conflict, which has killed more than 3,000 people since April.
A separate law passed in the same closed-door hearing grants amnesty to participants in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, excluding those who have committed "serious crimes."
The laws are in keeping with a September 5 deal in which Ukraine's government and the rebels, who hold large swaths of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, agreed on a cease-fire and on steps to end the conflict, which has killed more than 3,000 people since April.
The cease-fire was frayed by fighting over the weekend. Amnesty International has accused fighters on both sides of abuses that might be classified as war crimes.
President Petro Poroshenko has said the "special status" law guarantees "the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence" of Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department congratulated the Ukrainian lawmakers.
"By forging ahead with this agreement in the face of great challenges, Ukraine's leaders have carried out the will of the Ukrainian people, who demonstrated their overwhelming support for further integration with Europe last winter and with their votes in the May 25 presidential elections," said Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department.
Harf also applauded the passage of the amnesty and self-rule measures, saying they were "two important commitments Ukraine made in the Minsk cease-fire agreement on September 5."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz called the ratification a "historic moment" that met the "dreams of the people who fought for democracy" in Ukraine.
Will Rebels Listen?
Before the vote, Luhansk separatist leader Ihor Plotnitskiy said the bills provide "a chance" for a peace settlement but that questions remained.
But other rebels dismissed them, saying they would settle for nothing short of full autonomy.
"Complete self-rule will be introduced in Donbas, this territory no longer has anything to do with Ukraine," Andrei Purgin, deputy prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told AFP.
"Ukraine is free to adopt any law it wants. But we are not planning any federalism with Ukraine."
Shortly after the votes on "special status" and amnesty, the Rada and the European Parliament held simultaneous sessions at which they ratified the Association Agreement, a pact at the heart of the crisis in Ukraine.
Poroshenko told lawmakers the ratification of the agreement was a "first step" toward membership of the European Union.
"Tell me, who will now dare to shut Ukraine's doors to Europe? Who will be against our future membership in the EU, toward which today we are taking our first but very decisive step?" he said.
Refusal to sign the same agreement sparked months of protests leading to the ouster of Poroshenko's predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, and touched off a chain of events that included Russia's annexation of Crimea and the rebellion by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The agreement establishes a deep political association and free-trade area between Ukraine and the EU.
However, the EU and Ukraine agreed on September 12 to delay implementation of the free-trade pact until the end of 2015 in a concession to Russia, which has pushed Kyiv to join a Russian-led Eurasian customs union.
Ahead of the votes, fighting in and around the rebel-held city of Donetsk has strained the cease-fire and led to mutual recriminations.
City authorities said six people were killed on September 14 and four more on September 15.
Kyiv and the West accuse Moscow of backing the separatists with troops and arms and annexing Crimea to punish Kyiv for pursuing a pro-European path.
NATO Secretary-General Andres Fogh Rasmussen said on September 15 that Moscow appeared to want to impose a "protracted frozen conflict" in eastern Ukraine in order to increase its influence in the region and keep its neighbors out of NATO and the EU.
Moscow denies it has sent soldiers or weapons to eastern Ukraine and accuses the United States and the EU of stoking the conflict, which has driven Russia's ties with the West to a post-Cold War low and led to an exchange of punitive sanctions.
With reporting by AFP, Interfax, RIA, AP, and Reuters