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Ukraine inches towards Customs Union with Moscow

People take part in a rally of the pro-Western Ukrainian opposition at Independence Square in Kiev on January 12, 2014

The Ukrainian government approved Wednesday a programme of cooperation with former Soviet states that have joined the Customs Union, although rapprochement with the Russia-led bloc has fuelled continuing pro-Europe protests in Kiev.

The programme details cooperation with member states of the Customs Union up to 2020, though without "any mention of Ukraine's plans to join the Customs Union" until then, Viktor Suslov, Ukraine's representative in the integration process, told AFP.

Before the government approved it, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the programme offers a "detailed plan of developing trade and economic relations ... in the industrial, auto, aerospace, and ship-building, agriculture, transportation, and tourism sectors."

Kiev in November backed out of a long-discussed Association Agreement with the European Union, which would have sealed closer cooperation with Europe, and instead signed a slew of strategic partnership deals with Moscow.

The unexpected reversal caused unprecedented protests in the capital of Russia's western neighbour, as hundreds of thousands of people demanded that the country is put back on a European path.

Russia proceeded to give a $15-billion (11-billion-euro) bailout to the country of 46 million people which had been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, saving it, at least temporarily, from the risk of default.

Ukrainian officials have so far denied that the country will join the Customs Union, as President Vladimir Putin has sought, a move feared by pro-European Ukrainians as a step back into the Soviet Union.

The trade bloc already includes the ex-Soviet states of Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Armenia's entry was recently approved by the country's parliament.

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