The European Union agreed Thursday to recognize Ukraine as a free market economy, a status the republic sought to gain an economic and political foothold in the bloc it wants to join.
The prized status, which still must be formalized, is a victory for President Viktor Yushchenko as well as for Ukrainian businesses seeking to trade with Western Europe, which have been hampered by anti-dumping rules. Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said formalities should be complete by January.
"The future of Ukraine is in Europe, and now we are building that future with concrete steps," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said after a brief EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the decision was the result of reforms that Ukraine has pushed through since last year's Orange Revolution mass protests.
"These processes of change are immensely difficult and it is always hard to meet every expectation that is raised, but I hope people in Ukraine are in no doubt ... about how differently Ukraine is viewed in the world," Blair said.
Blair said market economy status and closer relations are important.
"But the greatest importance is the symbolism of a newer and deeper and stronger relationship between the EU and Ukraine," he said.
Yushchenko came to power pledging to nudge this poor ex-Soviet nation closer to the West, but had received largely a lukewarm reception from the newly expanded European Union. The summit was the ninth between the European Union and Ukraine, and Yushchenko called it the most successful.
Among other benefits, market economy status allows Ukraine to defend itself against European accusations of illegally dumping products cheaply on the EU markets, which can result in costly punitive duties, the AP reports.