During an annual summit in Brussels, the EU and Ukraine agreed on a plan that will require Kiev to improve document security, border management and other policies, while giving no timetable for when visa requirements may be lifted.
Diplomats recently told EurActiv that Ukraine's visa liberalisation process would be "different" from the one recently agreed with Western Balkan countries. The visa requirement could effectively be lifted but only in the long term, the officials said.
Yesterday's agreement is part of an EU effort to forge closer ties with Ukraine in a bid to encourage reforms and boost energy cooperation. But it falls short of Kiev's hopes for a trade deal, underscoring EU concerns over human rights.
"We acknowledge Ukraine's European aspiration and we welcome its European choice," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told a news conference after meeting Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
But he added the EU was concerned about recent local elections in Ukraine and urged the government to make progress on constitutional reforms.
"We also discussed and emphasised the importance of respect for freedom of the media, freedom of assembly and freedom of association, and the protection of human rights defenders," he said.
The Ukrainian opposition and the United States have criticised Yanukovich over a local election held on 31 October, the first since he won power in February. The vote was seen as an early test of his stated commitment to democracy.
Until now, the EU has offered the former Soviet state an association agreement which would include a free trade deal, but it has not promised membership or proposed EU-candidate status.
EU leaders said the two sides made progress on Monday in talks on trade and a deal could be finalised by the middle of next year.
But Yanukovich said ahead of the summit that trade deals were not enough and Ukraine wanted to be given clear hopes of joining the EU.
"It goes without saying that we think that this [association] agreement must reflect Ukraine's EU accession prospects," he said in an interview with three foreign news agencies.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)