Thu May 11, 2017 1:49PM
Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission in Brussels on February 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)
Ukraine's Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission in Brussels on February 10, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Ukrainians have been allowed to make visa-free travel to the European Union’s Schengen Area, amid tensions between the Western-backed country and Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday that the EU had finally decided to approve Ukraine’s years-long bid to obtain visa-free travel for its citizens to Schengen countries, which includes 22 EU members and four non-EU states.

“YES, we did it!” wrote the pro-Western Poroshenko on Facebook, adding, “It feels like coming home after a long and exhausting journey.”

The approval comes nearly three years after Ukrainians, mostly in the capital Kiev and west of the country, revolted against a Russia-backed government. That sparked a massive conflict in south and east of the country, where ethnic Russians decided to join Russia in a referendum and later engaged in a conflict with the Kiev government. More than 10,000 have been killed in the violent conflict in Ukraine’s east.

The visa-free travel is part of broad trade and political agreement sealed between Ukraine and the EU in 2014.

The European Council said in statement that visa liberalization was a reward for Ukraine’s efforts to improve rights and security situation.

“It follows the completion of the necessary reforms by Ukraine in a number of areas, including migration, public order and security, external relations and fundamental rights,” said the body from Brussels, adding that the approval for visa-free travel was “an important development which will help strengthen ties between the people of Ukraine and the EU.”

The statement noted, however, that the EU member states agreed to liberalize visa after reaching a deal on how to suspend the mechanism. It said the member states would be allowed to halt the scheme “if there are serious migration or security issues with Ukraine."

Under the mechanism, Ukrainians would be allowed to stay but not work in the Schengen area for 90 days in any 180-day period. The waiver also applies to stays in Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania, four EU members which have yet to make it into the Schengen zone.