BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Parliament on Thursday supported easing travel rules for Ukrainians, driving on a Western integration viewed with great suspicion by Moscow.
Ukraine has been the scene of the worst confrontation between Russia and the West in Europe since the Cold War with Moscow annexing Crimea from Kiev in 2014 and backing separatist rebels in the east of the country.
The West has sided with Ukraine, where Russia intervened after a Moscow-allied president was toppled by street protests demanding an end to corruption and closer EU ties. Russia denies direct military involvement in its southern neighbor.
European lawmakers voted 521 to 75 to grant Ukrainians holding biometric passports the right to visit for up to 90 days for tourism, business or visiting relatives and friends.
“Great day for the people of Europe and Ukraine,” said Anna Maria Corazza Bildt, a Swedish member of the Parliament.
The visa waiver, which does not give Ukrainians the right to work in the EU, is expected to take effect this summer.
The pro-Western government in Kiev is moving closer to the EU and NATO. But a weak economy and endemic corruption would hinder any move to accession, and some states would be unwilling to further anger Ukraine’s Soviet-era ruler, Russia, by incorporating it into an alliance it views as hostile.
The waiver covers all EU states except Ireland and Britain, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland - not in the EU but members of Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone.
Kiev’s Europe Minister Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said the vote on Thursday was “a strong signal to the aggressor that Ukraine is on its way back to the European family.”
Three years of fighting in Ukraine’s industrial east killed more than 10,000 people.
While the heaviest battles have died down, the conflict is still simmering and peace efforts are stalled amid mutual recriminations by Kiev, EU and NATO on the one side, and Russia and the rebels on the other.
Editing by Ralph Boulton