Ukraine's parliament ratified an agreement to deepen economic and political ties with the European Union Tuesday, hoping to end once and for all a controversy that sparked the country's political crisis.
It was the refusal of former President Viktor Yanukovych to approve the deal last year that sparked popular and occasionally violent protests in Kiev. Yanukovych was ousted in February, but the following months saw Russia's annexation of Crimea and the beginning of a war with Moscow-backed separatists that has killed over 2,600 people, according to U.N. estimates.
The ratification vote in Kiev was met with a standing ovation, and members of parliament leapt to their feet to sing the Ukrainian national anthem. In a speech to legislators, President Petro Poroshenko called the vote a "first but very decisive step" toward bringing Ukraine fully into the European Union.
Poroshenko also said that those who died during the protests and during fighting in the east "gave up their lives so that we could take a dignified place among the European family."
"Since World War II, not a single nation has paid such a high price for their right to be European," he said.
In stark contrast to that fanfare, parliament went behind closed doors earlier in the day to approve two bills granting greater autonomy to rebellious regions in the east, as well as amnesty for many of those involved in the fighting. The bills are part of a tenuous peace process that saw a cease-fire called on Sept. 5, which has been repeatedly violated and criticized by many in Ukraine.
On Tuesday, the city council in Donetsk said three people and five wounded in shelling overnight. Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, said three Ukrainian servicemen were killed over the past day. Clashes continue in the area around the airport in Donetsk, the largest city under rebel control.
The legislation on autonomy falls short of the eastern rebels' aim for complete independence, but rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency that the rebel leadership would study the measures.
The EU association agreement was long sought by Ukrainians who want their country to turn westward and out of Russia's sphere of influence. After then-President Viktor Yanukovych shelved the deal last year, protests broke out that eventually spiraled into violence and led to Yanukovych fleeing the country.
In the wake of that, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and a pro-Russia rebellion broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces in April launched a military operation to put down the rebellion, which it claims gets substantial support including troops and equipment from Russia.
Russia strongly opposed Ukraine's tilt toward the EU, hoping to bring the country into a Moscow-led trade bloc that would balance or compete with the EU. Ukrainians who sought closer ties with the Western bloc denounced the Russia-led trade bloc as an attempt to reconstitute the Soviet Union.
Moscow also feared that closer ties with the EU and the reduction of tariffs on Western goods would undermine Ukraine's demand for Russian goods and could allow the re-export to Russia of EU goods at lower prices.
In a significant concession to Russia, Ukraine and the EU agreed last week to delay the reduced-tariff regime that is part of the agreement until at least 2016.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.